Billy Graham gift planned by City of Cleveland

Posted 10/22/17

The Rev. Billy Graham, who first stepped into higher education in Cleveland in the 1930s, may be receiving a small birthday gift from the city on his 99th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 7.The …

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Billy Graham gift planned by City of Cleveland


The Rev. Billy Graham, who first stepped into higher education in Cleveland in the 1930s, may be receiving a small birthday gift from the city on his 99th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 7.

The world-renowned evangelist will be observing his 99th year at his home in Montreat, N.C., at the same time the city of Cleveland could be erecting a street sign for the extension of Billy Graham Avenue on the Lee University campus.

The avenue extension is being promoted by Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland at Monday's regular-scheduled Council session. The Council will meet in a work session at 1 p.m., followed by the voting meeting at 3.

A resolution renaming a portion of 15th Street, from Parker Street to Magnolia, as an extension of Billy Graham Avenue is listed on the agenda for consideration.

Also on the council's schedule will be two public hearings, nine items on the consent agenda, and anticipated opposition to a request for a plan of service, annexation, and rezoning of a five-acre parcel adjacent to Foxfire Subdivision. 

More than 80 years ago Graham, just out of high school, decided to continue his education at Cleveland’s Bob Jones College. His stay in our community was disapointingly short.

According to published reports, Graham was disillusioned by his educational adventure in Cleveland.

As an 18-year-old, he came to the attention of the college’s president, Dr. Bob Jones. Jones heard that Graham and a fellow classmate were considering a transfer to Florida Bible Institute, just outside of Tampa. 

Graham had been ill during his first semester, had bad grades and had compiled a “stack of demerits”  — for falling short of the school’s strict standards. After learning about the planned transfer, Jones gave the young student a warning and a prediction. The prediction was a complete flop.

“Billy, if you leave and throw your life away at a little country Bible school, the chances are you’ll never be heard of,” Jones said. “At best, all you can amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.”

It was not an unreasonable prediction, given the school’s focus, but it did prove to be far from what eventually happened.

The longtime world-famous preacher has said he felt disconnected in Cleveland, and went on and transferred to the Florida school.

While in Florida, Graham joined a Southern Baptist Convention church, where he was ordained in 1939. He has since attained unrivaled fame around the world, and has even been  called "The Protestant Pope" of America.

The severance of the relationship between Graham and Dr. Jones was soon repaired. Twelve years after they first met, Bob Jones University would confer on Billy Graham — then the president of Northwestern Baptist Bible College in Minneapolis — an honorary doctorate. In March 1950, Graham held an evangelistic rally on the campus of Bob Jones University (then located in Greenville, S.C). The mayor there ordered the stores in town to close, and classes were dismissed early for the event.

Graham formed a strong friendship with Bob Jones Sr. and Junior, with Billy inviting criticism and guidance from “Dr. Bob.”

The elder Jones took up the offer. The following excerpts are from a 1952 letter to Billy that contains some helpful advice:

“I would advise you to take a few campaigns in small towns and pull your budget way down. It will do your soul good to get away from the cities and into small communities where Americans live and where there is not so much glamour,” Dr. Jones said, perhaps calling attention to the needs of people living in smaller communities — like Cleveland. 

Jones also raised the issue of politics, a source of perennial fascination, power and temptation to him.

“Now, politics has been my weakness. It is going to be a weakness with you. Watch about your association with politicians. If you are not careful, you will be used sometime when you are not conscious of being used,” Jones advised.

He could never have fathomed the eventual depth of Graham’s relationship with national and world politicians. 

Graham would pray with and for, and counsel, 11 different U.S. presidents — from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. 

More than a half century after receiving the letter from the elder Jones, Graham was asked about his regrets and what he would have done differently. In addition to spending more time with his family, he mentioned his association with politicians:

“I should have steered clear of politics,” Graham said. “I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line. I wouldn’t do that now.”

Graham, approaching his 99th birthday Tuesday in Montreat, N.C., will be unable to attend the dedication of the extension of Bill Graham Avenue in Cleveland.

Family members, especially his daughter, Gigi, will also be unable to attend, but have expressed their appreciation in Dr. Graham’s behalf.

Graham’s time in Cleveland was very limited, but the community made an impact on the teenager.

Bob Jones College purchased and moved to its new campus in Cleveland in 1933 from Bay County, Fla. The college’s intramural sports program and Artist Series began here, and the college established a work scholarship program to help students pay for their education expenses.

Despite the Depression, enrollment increased. New buildings allowed the college to accommodate this growth. Following World War II, the GI Bill was introduced, causing the student body to nearly double in size, similar to what has happened in recent years for the Lee University campus. The mid-20th century growth forced Bob Jones College to relocate once again.

In 1946, the construction of a new campus began in Greenville, S.C. With the addition of six academic schools, the school became Bob Jones University in 1947. 

That same year, the board of trustees elected Dr. Bob Jones Jr. president of the university. Just like his father, the younger Jones upheld the university’s foundation on the Scriptures, while emphasizing the fine arts.

And, it has always kept a close association with the young teenager who transferred from its halls of learning in Cleveland many years before — The Rev. Billy Graham.


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