Daddy Bill (1918-2018)
It was May 2, 1996, and I was sitting in the U.S. Capitol rotunda with my family. We were eagerly anticipating the ceremony that was getting ready to begin. I had been to Washington DC once before, back in 1985, when I was just 13 years old. This trip was different though. We were there because my grandparents were being honored on this day with the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest honor the United States Congress can bestow on a citizen. In fact, Senator Bob Dole, during a speech at the ceremony, said, “When the idea of awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Billy and Ruth Graham was first raised, it received something rare in this building—unanimous approval.” Everybody laughed. At the time, it was only the 114th medal awarded, with George Washington being the first recipient. There were hundreds who came that day to honor my grandparents, ranging from then Vice President Al Gore to Kathy Lee Gifford. Newt Gingrich, Senator Dole, and Vice President Gore publicly honored my grandparents by sharing how much my grandparents meant to each of them personally.
After the medal was presented, my granddad got up to speak. Before he could say a word, the crowd stood and applauded for a solid three minutes. Tears began streaming down my face. I was so proud of him and so thankful that God had given me such a tremendous heritage—one I had neither asked for nor deserved. Here was a man who was being publicly honored for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people than anyone in history; a man who was being recognized for his love for God and love for others—and I had the privilege of calling him “Daddy Bill.”
It was no surprise that he presented the Gospel that day. He spoke boldly of sin, the Cross, and the amazing grace of God. He spoke of God’s infinite willingness to forgive, the brevity of life and the fleeting pleasures of this world. He looked into the eyes of the many high ranking political leaders who were there that day and challenged them to contemplate death and the life after. He was so bold, so unashamed of the Gospel—yet so winsome. To this day, I’m not sure I have ever heard the truth spoken in love more effectively. I had heard him preach a thousand times, but this time was particularly moving. I’ll never forget that day.
Today I woke up to find out that Daddy Bill had died.
Born November 7, 1918, on a dairy farm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, “Daddy Bill” lived the majority of his life on the world stage. But these last 4–5 years he rarely left home. My visits with him in recent years were nothing more and nothing less than sitting by his bedside, holding his hand, and reminding him of how much I love him. All he could manage was an occasional smile and a squeeze of my hand.
The last real conversation I had with him will forever live in my memory.
We were sitting in his bedroom. His body was frail, but his mind was still sharp. He talked to me about how hard it was to get old, how much he missed my grandmother (his wife of over 60 years who had died in June 2007), and how he had watched most of his closest friends die already. He expressed sorrow for a world that was still in dire need of the Gospel and how helpless he felt to do much about it in his weakened condition. But as was typical of Daddy Bill, he mostly wanted to talk about someone other than himself. He was always doing that: turning the attention away from himself to whoever he was talking to. He wanted to know all about my ministry and the unique challenges and opportunities that accompanied it. He wanted to know details about Gabe, Nate, and Genna. He encouraged me and reminded me of how much he loved me. And then we prayed together.
That conversation alone summed up his entire life and ministry: he decreased in order that Christ might increase; he yearned for the entire world to believe the Gospel; and he always saw the person in front of him as the one God had given him to love and care for.
There is absolutely no way that I could possibly express everything that he meant to me and my family, but not long ago I wrote a few things down that I’ve always admired about my granddad. And this seems to be the right time to share them.
1. His Humility: Daddy Bill was keenly aware that God is God and he is not. He was always conscious of his smallness and God’s bigness, his imperfection and God’s perfection. He was a spiritual giant of a man, who made himself small in order to magnify the greatness of Christ’s love. When I was young, I had no clue that my grandfather was a pretty important person. He was just my granddad. I know he would be super uncomfortable with all the praise and admiration he’s receiving as people remember his life because he absolutely believed that he was the worst person he knew. He never paraded his importance, never advertised his fame. If he was pointing anywhere, it wasn’t to himself but to the Cross where the Son of God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death for us all.
2. His Love for the Gospel: Daddy Bill’s deep sense of his own sin led him to a deep love for his Savior. He had a singular, unwavering focus on the Good News of Jesus crucified and risen for us. He may have traveled the globe, but his feet remained anchored to the soil beneath the Cross. There he stood, calling one and calling all to come to the Friend of Sinners, to receive forgiveness and life from him. God’s amazing grace captivated his heart. That love never ceased to amaze him—and that amazes me!
3. His Faithfulness: He had the opportunity to do many things: host his own TV show, become President of various colleges and seminaries, star in movies, and yes, even run for President of the United States. He could have done these things and many more. But he didn’t. He never wavered from God’s call to be an Evangelist. He knew he wasn’t a scholar or a theologian and he never tried to be. He put his hand to the plow and never looked back. God had called him to preach the Gospel. And God’s call put his feet on a path from which he never wavered. And he fulfilled that calling without ever being guilty of any sexual, financial, or other moral scandal.
4. His Rejection of Favoritism: I was with Daddy Bill in numerous places at numerous times with numerous people. Yet never—not once—did I see him show favoritism. He treated all people the same, whether they were rich or poor, weak or powerful, socially significant or socially insignificant. Because of his belief that all people are made in God’s image, he rightfully concluded that there are no little people.
5. His Humanness: Daddy Bill was normal! He got mad, he got sad, he could be grumpy, and he had a remarkable sense of humor. His favorite restaurant was Morrison’s Cafeteria. His favorite movie was Crocodile Dundee. His favorite drink was orange juice, and he loved catfish. He was just another man with all of the limitations and idiosyncrasies that the rest of us have—and I loved him for it!
The world will miss Billy Graham for his trustworthy stature, his unifying influence, his robust integrity, and his respected perspective. He was once called “America’s Pastor.” He preached around the world to millions of people. He became a household name.
And as important and remarkable as all of those things are, as important and remarkable as he himself was, I will simply miss my Daddy Bill. The hands that gripped so many pulpits held me as a baby. The voice that boomed the truths of the Gospel spoke gently to me as a child. The man who prayed alongside multiple Presidents took my hand and prayed with me.
Whatever great things may be said about Billy Graham, the greatest thing about him to me was that he was my very own Daddy Bill.