He was a resident of a little mountain town in Buncombe County, N.C. for many years. County commissioners wished him a happy 99th birthday back in November. The Rev. Billy Graham was their friend and neighbor. The preacher to U.S. presidents who was known worldwide, died in his sleep Feb. 21 at his home in Montreat, N.C., 20 miles east of Asheville.
“We’re gonna miss him, no one can fill his shoes,” said Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher. “I actually was able to go to his 95th birthday celebration that was here in Buncombe County — I was honored to be a part of it, to be able to attend something that celebrated the life of someone who selflessly gave so much to his ministry and just made such a dramatic impact in every way for Buncombe County — he had such a positive impact here.”
Buncombe County Government offices, like many others across the nation, lowered their flags in memory of Graham. A funeral was set for March 2 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., site of the Billy Graham Library. Graham grew up there, on a dairy farm.
“Growing up as a child I would listen to the Billy Graham crusades,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner George Dunlap, a NACo Board member. “He had a great impact on the Charlotte community and he had a great impact on the nation as well. Growing up you didn’t realize the impact he had on the world until you could see this local person standing there with all the presidents. You saw him with Obama, you saw him with Clinton, you saw him with the Bushes. It was then that you recognized just how influential and prominent Billy Graham was.”
People were drawn to Graham because of “his genuineness, it was something about his delivery … he wasn’t a phony,” Dunlap said.
A frequent stop for Graham, on his way to the Charlotte airport from his home in Buncombe County was in Cleveland County, N.C., home to his favorite barbecue joint, Bridges Barbecue.
Belcher, a 36-year resident of the county, posted information about Graham’s death and motorcade route on his Facebook page. “It was an honor for people to get to a place to where they could see the motorcade, it was a celebration,” he said. “It’s been an honorable time, people lining up, people pulling over, the comments — it’s been a very positive time in the passing of a great man,” he said.
The motorcade carried Graham’s body Feb. 24 from the Billy Graham Training Center, also known as The Cove, in Buncombe County to Mecklenburg County.
Thousands lined the streets to pay their respects, recording the motorcade with their phones, holding up bibles or nodding as the hearse drove past.
Family, friends and admirers paid their respects at Graham’s boyhood home, a complex that now includes his library and the headquarters for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Mecklenburg County.
Mourners included former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, who visited Feb. 26 and former President Bill Clinton, who arrived Feb. 27.
Clinton recalled with reporters the first time he saw Graham, when he was 11 years old, at a crusade in Little Rock, where Graham insisted on preaching to black and white Christians. The White Citizens Council had tried to convince him to preach to a segregated audience, but Graham told them he would cancel the crusade and tell the world why.
“He was certainly ahead of his time in terms of inclusion,” Dunlap said. “There were people who talked about when he had the crusades they didn’t make distinctions about where blacks could sit or where whites could sit. He was certainly ahead of his time in terms of inclusion.”
“He understood that the message was, ‘it’s not about what we look like,’” Belcher said. “I don’t know that he was ahead of his time, he was right on time.”
Graham’s body was flown by private jet to Washington, D.C. where he was lying in honor Feb. 28 and March 1 at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
He is the fourth private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol, following Rosa Parks and two Capitol police officers who died in the line of duty, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association noted.
Several institutions across his home state of North Carolina are named in his honor, including an evangelical training center in the Blue Ridge Mountains and a wing of an Asheville hospital for critically and chronically ill children, known as the Ruth and Billy Graham Children’s Health Center. In 1996, Gov. Jim Hunt named Interstate 240 in Buncombe County the Billy Graham Freeway.
Graham’s funeral was set for Friday, March 2 in Mecklenburg County.
“You can recognize how simplistic he was,” Dunlap said. “Look at his burial, he’s being buried in a box.”
The pine plywood casket, crafted in 2006 by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., is lined with a mattress pad. On top rests a simple wooden cross the prisoners nailed into place.
“He was a very humble man,” Belcher said. “There were no controversies locally. He was always a good ambassador for Buncombe County.”
There have been some suggestions as to how the county might honor Graham in the future. “We want to look at the ways we can do that, to make a lasting impact,” Belcher said. “As a county we will look at a way to do that.”
About his own death, Reverend Graham said: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”