AN INFLUENTIAL LIFE REMEMBERED

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June 1, 2013 · Posted in Miscellany 

Bill & Elsie Graham 50th wedding anniversary (Nov. 2010)


By Bob Vickrey

 

The day my sister first brought her boyfriend (and future husband) home to meet our family, Bill Graham seemed so tall and larger than life to this scrawny 15-year-old high school sophomore, I was afraid he might bump his head on our living room ceiling.

 

In fact, years later, when I remembered his first visit to our home, I was reminded of the opening lines of Jimmy Dean’s popular song of that era, Big John. “Every morning at the mine you could see him arrive. He stood six-foot-six, weighed 245.” However, unlike the mythical intimidating character in Dean’s ballad, the physical dimensions were about all those two shared in common. I soon learned this big man was a kind and gentle giant who would eventually become a central figure in my young life.

 

Somewhere along the way, one of his school pals nicknamed him “Big ‘Un.” I eventually learned that his boyhood nickname embodied a far greater meaning than just his imposing frame—it also described the size of his heart and his unparalleled generosity.

 

When Bill Graham died on the last day of April, there were endless testimonials from members of his church and community which described a man who had lived his entire life in the service of others. Numerous stories were told about the encouragement he had offered to the people of Nashville in their time of need. His wise counsel and calming presence was in clear evidence as our family listened to friends who mourned his passing.

 

I had recently written a column in which I had mentioned receiving a timely and thoughtful letter from him in high school after having read a few sports stories I had written for our local weekly paper. He encouraged me to consider the field of journalism as a viable option for a college major, and his understated guidance was just the nudge that I needed at that particular time to discover some confidence and direction. When I arrived in Nashville for his memorial service, I found I was only one among hundreds of people whom he had once supported and encouraged along the way.

 

Unlike many teenage boys who needed a male role model in my life, I was born into a family in which it was unnecessary to leave the confines of my own home in order to find models and heroes. My dad was a kind and compassionate father whom I greatly respected, and my older brother had given me guidance and assurance when he sensed I needed it most. But Bill’s arrival simply made our family even better.

 

He took me under his wing and helped gently guide me into adulthood. When he visited our home he usually brought gifts for our family members. Knowing my love of sports, he brought me biographies of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. His bookselling background offered the subtle model which may have ultimately steered me into a life in books and publishing.

 

He took me to play golf for the first time, and I’ll never know for sure, but I think he let me win. He gave me my first lesson in bowling and also taught me how to shoot a jump shot—although I thought he had the decided advantage since his hands extended almost to the height of the basketball net.

 

One day he showed up carrying a bundle of plastic-wrapped objects called “Flying Frisbee Pluto Platters,” and predicted they would be popular by the end of the year. We handed Frisbees out to kids on our street the same day, and by the end of the week, 10th Street became a rather precarious place for pedestrians and automobiles to navigate. Of course in later years, Bill and I took full credit for creating national Frisbee mania.

 

My classmates and neighborhood friends congregated at our house when he and my sister came to visit. He remembered all my friends’ names and asked them about their families and their general interests. During his next visit, he asked about each person (by name) whom he had met on the previous trip and recalled some detail about their last conversation. My best friends let me know in no uncertain terms that I, indeed, had one very cool brother-in-law.

 

Bill was a native of the small town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and was born into a family with a God-fearing mother who was so strict that she did not allow Root Beer in the house because of the reference to alcohol in the soft drink’s name. The family was deeply religious, and his mother was pleased when Bill chose to attend Wheaton College where his famous first cousin, evangelist Billy Graham, had attended years earlier. He received his ministerial degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1960, and eventually became director of the large chain of Baptist bookstores across the country. After retirement, he held various jobs at his church. Upon hearing the many stories of the remarkable impact of his work there, I decided that if churches had ever created the position of CEO, he would likely have owned the title.

Bill & his cousin, evangelist Billy Graham

 

Bill owned subscriptions to seemingly every newspaper and magazine available. Oh, how this man loved to read! He had acquired an impressive home library that extended from room to room, and had even more books in storage. He had begun to give away some of his many volumes—but did so with great reluctance.

 

He had acquired a great love of country music while living in Nashville, and had assembled an impressive collection of rare albums and music magazines which he donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

 

Bill reintroduced me to country music during one visit when he took me to the Grand Ole Opry at the old Ryman Auditorium. I fought fiercely against my lingering Texas roots, which were deeply imbedded in the music of my youth, but after Ernest Tubb performed his signature ballad, Waltz Across Texas, I knew my struggle was to no avail. Bill seemed pleased that he had succeeded in winning me over from my enduring love of rock and roll—at least for one evening.

 

When I arrived at the church for a visitation period the evening before the memorial service, I found myself completely re-evaluating his (and my sister, Elsie’s) stature in the Brentwood and Nashville community. Hundreds of friends and community members stood in long lines for interminable waiting periods to greet my sister and her family, as she gracefully welcomed each person who came to pay their respects. My brother Ray and I stood nearby watching in complete awe the spectacle we were witnessing. We marveled not only at our sister’s grace and elegance in the face of the loss of her husband and partner of 52 years, but were equally impressed by her unwavering stamina.

 

Bill’s good friend, Dr. Mike Glenn, led the memorial service and told his own personal stories about how Bill’s friendship and wise counsel had helped him survive his toughest crisis as a young minister. Bill’s simple endorsement in the early phase of Mike’s ministry there had been sufficient support to win over many of his skeptics within the large congregation.

 

Mike said he had consoled so many people in the community who were grieving so deeply about the loss of the man who had been always been there when they had needed him. He told of one distraught woman’s call who simply said, “Who is going to be our Bill?” Mike said many others had echoed the same sentiment.

 

My dear brother-in-law was known as a man of integrity and possessed an unquestioned moral compass that guided him—even when his views were not embraced by others. He had been a strong and vocal advocate during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, long before it became fashionable and politically correct to embrace integration. He always radiated a sense of optimism even when newspaper headlines reflected otherwise. He believed deeply in the intrinsic goodness of humanity.

 

I’m convinced that Bill still loved my sister as much in his last day on earth as he did that day he walked into our home all those years ago. If I could have hand-picked a mate for my sister out of a catalog back then, the choice would have been simple—I would have simply pointed to the picture of Bill Graham.

 

As I prepared to make my journey back home to Los Angeles, the words of the grieving woman had haunted me long after the service had ended when she had asked “Who is going to be our Bill?” As the wheels of the 757 airliner left the Nashville runway tarmac and lifted for takeoff, I leaned back against the head-rest and asked myself a much more selfish question, “Who is now going to be my Bill?”

 

Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors at the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.


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