Upon hearing Billy Graham’s message on TV, Sherri Callaham’s alcoholic father went into the bathroom, closed the door and prayed to receive Christ.
But salvation wasn’t the only big change in his life. Callaham’s father never hit the bottle again.
“He was delivered immediately from alcoholism,” she said. “And the result of that was a completely changed life for my family.”
As Graham’s death was announced Wednesday, Feb. 21, memories of her father’s conversion flooded back for Callaham, a Lula resident.
“I just sat down and bawled,” she said.
Other area residents and pastors reacted with sadness and a bit of nostalgia, remembering the televised crusades that made Graham a household name worldwide. Graham broke into TV long before televangelists began hitting the airwaves.
More than a preacher who filled stadiums and arenas, Graham counseled presidents and other world leaders for decades.
“I can’t possibly think of an individual more committed to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ than Billy Graham,” said the Rev. Jentezen Franklin, senior pastor of Free Chapel in Gainesville, in a statement.
“He led millions to the foot of the cross with a tender voice faithfully relaying a message of hope. His ministry has reached far and wide, across hundreds of nations.
“Upon hearing him preach for the first time, one could immediately realize how dearly this man loved Jesus and wanted others to experience that same love — it overflowed from the very depths of his heart.
“His passion and commitment to sharing the love of Jesus all around the world was instrumental in my own life, inspiring me as I began my ministry.”
Many others were similarly affected.
One of those was the late Gene Beckstein, who founded Good News at Noon homeless ministry in Gainesville. Beckstein once said Graham’s evangelism moved him to take action to help others through Christian ministry.
Fletcher Law, pastor at Good News, paid homage to Graham.
“He brought the evangelistic gospel back to the forefront of America,” Law said. “He lived it. He was a man of integrity throughout his ministry.”
As a tribute to the evangelist, he and his wife named their son Graham.
The Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Gainesville on Green Street, described Graham as “quite a force in moral leadership and integrity.”
“What I loved so much about Billy Graham was you could trust what he said. He was an evangelical leader … and he was a good face for the church of Jesus Christ in the world.”
He too has a vivid boyhood memory of Graham.
When his crusades were televised, “in our household, everything stopped,” Coates said. “We had to watch the Billy Graham crusade.”
Graham’s death didn’t “totally surprise me, but it was certainly saddening,” Coates said.
Graham had been in failing health the past few years.
A tall, striking man with thick hair, stark blue eyes and a firm jaw, Graham was a commanding presence at his crusades. He would make the altar call in his powerful baritone, asking the multitudes to stand, come down the aisles and publicly make “decisions for Christ,” as a choir crooned the hymn “Just As I Am.”
By his final crusade in 2005 in New York City, he had preached in person to more than 210 million people worldwide.
“What a welcome he must have received from Jesus Christ,” said Tom Smiley, senior pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville. “I think often that I would like to hear Jesus say when I die and enter into heaven, ‘Well done. You were a good and faithful servant.’
“I definitely believe Billy Graham heard his savior speak those words.”