We refer to Billy Graham, the famed messenger of God’s divine word who received his calling into the ministry as a college teenager at the former evangelical school which later moved its campus to South Carolina. Bob Jones College was located on a portion of the grounds that now host Lee University.
In May 2008, the Cleveland City Council renamed a portion of 15th Street which runs along the Lee University campus (near the Science and Math Complex) to Billy Graham Avenue in recognition of the evangelist’s brief time in this community.
On Friday, four years after the historic renaming, the street will be dedicated officially and will feature the visit of Virginia “Gigi” Graham, the prominent evangelist’s daughter. Miss Graham will be on hand for a brief program and to represent the Graham family.
This is not an ordinary dedication. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is rightfully selective about the events and community dedications it sanctions. For this reason, the renaming — and the dedication — have become a long and time-consuming process for Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland. Thanks to the longtime leader’s perseverance, the association has sanctioned the Cleveland renaming and dedication because of the evangelist’s start here as a young student.
In a recent presentation to members of the Bradley Cleveland Ministerial Association within the beautiful new chapel on the Lee University campus, Rowland quoted Dr. Lamar Vest, president of the American Bible Society. Vest, who relayed word to Graham of the local street renaming, said the world evangelist offered, “I wish I was able to travel to Cleveland, Tennessee, where I got my call to the ministry.”
Yet he will be here ... not physically, but in spirit, and in family.
It is why today we welcome Virginia Graham to our Cleveland and Bradley County hometown for a local observance of Billy Graham Day as jointly proclaimed by our two top elected officials — Mayor Rowland and Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis.
A planning committee of some of our community’s top leaders has been working feverishly over the past couple of months to outline the details for this historic occasion. They are leaving nothing to chance and each is offering invaluable input and material support to assure Miss Graham’s visit to Cleveland will be long remembered.
We especially appreciate some of the compassionate words offered by planners.
One came in a recent gathering from Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn who offered, “The vision to me of a young, skinny, 19-year-old Billy Graham, leaving Medlin Hall and walking down Ocoee Street, past all of those homes and past the monument, to the downtown shoe store, and selling shoes, walking back to his dorm — to me that’s a very rich vision. Those are the kinds of things we can legitimately tell people about.”
State Rep. Kevin Brooks, also a committee member, looked at Friday’s event with the eyes of a visionary. “I think this is going to be much larger than any of us envision,” the 24th District legislator offered.
He is correct.
Friday’s luncheon on the Lee campus, brief program and dedication will be history in the making. It will become yet another endearing chapter in the story of Cleveland, a blossoming community whose appeal lies not so much in size and amenity, but in the hearts of those who call it home.
Welcome, Virginia “Gigi” Graham ... to “The City With Spirit!”