What was Billy Graham like? Let the people who knew him best explain

What was Billy Graham like? Let the people who knew him best explain
Billy Graham was widely regarded as America's most prominent Christian leader, pastor to both presidents and everyday Americans. (Source: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Théoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - When Jean Graham Ford spoke at her older brother's funeral service, she couldn't resist this gentle joke:

"When the president saw me today, he said, 'My goodness, your family has good genes,' " said the 85-year-old Ford, Billy Graham's only surviving sister. "Well, he didn't know that my name is Jean."

It was exactly the kind of benevolent humor that Billy Graham might have used to break the ice with someone he'd just met.

In fact, as each of six Graham family members stepped up to share personal reflections Friday, in a cavernous tent on the Billy Graham Library grounds, you could see flashes of the man they and 2,000-plus guests were there to celebrate.

They were warm, like he was. They were charming, like he was. They had most everyone laughing at one point, and most everyone trying to fight back tears at another.

With a single anecdote, they convinced you how much Graham loved his late wife, Ruth (who died 11 years ago), or gave you a sense of the depth of his compassion and understanding as a father.

And, of course, they did what Graham always did best: They spread the Gospel.

"Are you saved?" asked his son, Franklin Graham, from the podium-turned-pulpit. "Are you forgiven? Are you trusting Jesus as your savior? Are you following him as your Lord? If you're not sure, there'd be no better time than right now at Billy Graham's funeral to settle this once and for eternity!"

But that's a Billy Graham we already knew. A Franklin Graham we already knew.

On this day, the most thoughtful and absorbing tributes were the quieter ones.

While delivering the gospel message near the end of the service, Franklin Graham recalled his parents' love:

"The last few years of my mother's life, my mother was sick in bed," he said, "and she would lie in bed on her side and my father would come in and he would sit beside her, and the two of them would look at each other. Just look at each other – I mean, eye-to-eye – for hours. And if I sat in the room, I felt a little uncomfortable," he said, only half-joking. "Like I was intruding."

Guests laughed, and not for the first time.

Virginia "Gigi" Graham (who followed Jean Graham Ford) explained that she was Billy Graham's "eldest" daughter, before adding: "I tell people that I don't want be called the 'oldest' or the 'eldest' anymore of the family; I want to be called the one that Daddy loved the longest."

After Anne Graham Lotz (his second daughter) got the crowd charged up while channeling her father in a passionate recitation from First Thessalonians, Ruth Graham (his third daughter) walked up to the podium and got the biggest laugh of the entire service.

"I have followed her all my life," she said, with a little roll of the eyes and a grin.

Then Nelson "Ned" Graham, Billy Graham's youngest son, came up to tease his sisters for being long-winded, himself popping on and off in about 45 seconds. (His summation: "My father was 'f.a.t.' – he was faithful, he was available, and he was teachable.")

There was even a little improv. Partway through Lotz's address, as she explained how she would read passages of scripture to her father late in his life, wind whipped through the tent, blowing what appeared to be her notes off the lectern. "I don't need 'em," she said, laughing. "Those are all Kleenexes." Then, after a beat: "Well... I may need 'em, actually."

And if she didn't, plenty of others did minutes later, when youngest daughter Ruth Graham gave what was arguably the afternoon's most powerful speech.

It's one that she admitted to having shared before, often – including in a 2004 book titled "In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart." But on this day, it packed an unusually emotional punch.

In describing her parents' attempts to warn her against rushing into a second marriage, Ruth Graham remembers "being stubborn, willful and sinful."

"I married this man ... and within 24 hours, I knew I'd made a terrible mistake. After five weeks, I fled. I was afraid of him," said Graham, who has contended he abused her. As she fought back tears, voice quavering, she continued: "What was I gonna say to Daddy? ... I'd been such a failure. What were they gonna say to me? 'We're tired of foolin' with you. We told you not to do it. You've embarrassed us.' And let me tell you – you women will understand – you don't want to embarrass your father.

"You really don't want to embarrass Billy Graham."

Many in the crowd laughed, through tears, with Ruth Graham.

"As I wound myself up the mountain, I rounded the last bend in my father's driveway, and my father was standing there waiting for me." She paused to compose herself. "As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and he said, 'Welcome home.' There was no shame. There was no blame. There was no condemnation. Just unconditional love. And, you know, my father was not God. But he showed me what God was like that day. When we come to God with our sin, our brokenness, our failure, our pain and our hurt, God says, 'Welcome home.'

"And that invitation," she said, smiling again, "is open for you."