Readers share their close encounters with Billy Graham

Dec. 01, 2013 @ 01:00 AM

The story is pretty well-known about the day Muhammad Ali visited Billy Graham at his mountaintop home in Montreat. The meeting was covered by national media, and photos from Ali’s visit can be found online to this day.
What you won’t find in those media accounts, however, is the story of the High Point man who was also there that day — and who claims to have orchestrated the visit between the two celebrities.
“It was a remarkable experience,” Marshall Edwards says, “having the opportunity to sit there with two of the most influential men in history, one who believed he could whip any man on the planet, and the other believing he could save their souls.”
Edwards, of High Point, was one of several High Point Enterprise readers who responded to the newspaper’s request to share stories of their personal encounters with Graham, who recently turned 95. The request was published with a Nov. 7 story about Graham’s little-known visit to a High Point church during his 1951 crusade in Greensboro. Their stories are shared here.
Edwards, who says he is a very distant cousin of Graham — but had never met him — says he thoroughly enjoyed meeting the famed evangelist, but it was actually Ali he’d been trying to get an audience with.
The year was 1979, and Edwards — a big fan of boxing, and especially of Ali — had a dire message for the famed heavyweight: Don’t fight Larry Holmes. Ali had announced his retirement that summer, but rumors were swirling that he wanted to get back in the ring and face Holmes.
“I had seen Holmes fight, and he was a monster,” Edwards says. “I didn’t want Ali to fight him.”
According to Edwards, he called an operator in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Ky., and while Ali’s number was obviously unlisted, the sympathetic operator put Edwards in touch with a friend of a friend of Ali. Eventually, Edwards says, Ali called him. During their brief conversation, Ali — knowing Edwards was in North Carolina — commented that someone he’d always wanted to meet was Billy Graham.
“I told him I was a distant relative, and he got real quiet,” Edwards says.
After hanging up, Edwards says he put in a call to Graham’s organization and told officials there about Ali’s desire to meet Graham. The visit was scheduled for Sept. 16, 1979, and Edwards was invited to meet Ali at the airport in Asheville and tag along for the visit to Montreat, he says.
That day, Edwards says he overslept and got a speeding ticket trying to get to the airport on time.
“I tried explaining to the patrolman that I was supposed to meet Muhammad Ali and Billy Graham, and he said, ‘If something like that was taking place, I think I’d have heard about it.’”
Edwards ended up missing Ali at the airport, so he drove on to Graham’s home in Montreat, getting directions from Graham’s assistant.
“It was a beautiful home on top of the mountain — just magnificent — and we were out on Billy Graham’s porch for about an hour and a half,” Edwards says.
The conversation included some talk about boxing — Edwards reiterated his warning not to fight Holmes, he says — but he also remembers Graham sharing his Christian faith with Ali, who is Muslim.
“He explained it very elegantly,” Edwards says. “As excited as I was about meeting Ali, I must say I walked away very impressed with Billy Graham.”
While the details of Edwards facilitating this famous meeting between Graham and Ali would be difficult to verify, he does have photos documenting that he was at Graham’s home the day Ali came to visit. In a photo of Edwards posing with the two celebrities, they’re wearing the same suits they’re seen wearing in the more famous photos of Ali’s visit.

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Reading about Graham’s 1951 visit to Lexington Avenue Baptist Church reminded Shirley Davis McLellan that she had seen Graham during his visit to the Triad.
During Graham’s six-week crusade in Greensboro, he came and spoke during a weekly chapel service at High Point College, where McLellan was a student at the time.
“I remember he had on a white coat and navy pants, and boy was he ever handsome,” the Davidson County woman says of the young evangelist.
More than his appearance, though, McLellan remembers the impact Graham had on her and her fellow students.
“Nobody really wanted to go to chapel, but it was required,” she says with a chuckle. “But the minute he started speaking, a hush came over the place, which was unusual for our chapels. Everybody was listening.”
High Point University officials this week could not locate any photos documenting Graham’s visit to the campus, but an article in the student newspaper, the Hi-Po, confirmed he was scheduled to speak during chapel.
“His speech caused me to follow him the rest of his days and keep up with what he was doing,” McLellan says. “He was such a powerful speaker.”

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The Rev. Joe D. Coltrane had a remarkable 12 hours on Nov. 25, 1963.
Early in the day, the High Point pastor and a friend attended President John F. Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, standing no farther than 200 feet away from the somber ceremony. (That story was reported in Tuesday’s Enterprise.)
Then, following the funeral, Coltrane rushed to the airport to catch his flight back to North Carolina. As he boarded the plane, he found himself sitting directly behind Billy Graham and Grady Wilson, one of the evangelist’s closest associates.
“I remember thinking, ‘My goodness, I know these guys,’” Coltrane says. “They were both very friendly and shook hands with me. That was a thrill.”
Planes at the airport were logjammed — no flights had been allowed to depart during Kennedy’s funeral, because it had included a flyover — so Coltrane had about 45 minutes to chat with the two men. They spoke of their mutual professions as men of the cloth and of Southern Baptist seminaries. Wilson mentioned other pastors he knew from High Point, including the Rev. E.W. “Buddy” Price of Green Street Baptist.
They spoke about Graham’s crusades, including the 1951 event in Greensboro, and Coltrane told Graham he’d taken his girlfriend to one of those services as a first date.
When Graham learned Coltrane had been to Kennedy’s funeral at Arlington, he told him he’d been to the services at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, at the family’s invitation.
“He even showed me the engraved invitation he had received,” Coltrane says.
Before their visit ended, the young pastor handed Graham and Wilson a book he’d brought along to read, asking them to autograph it for him. They willingly complied, and Coltrane treasures that book to this day.

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The most common encounter people had with Graham are those who attended one of his crusades. They didn’t meet Graham, though — they met Jesus.
“My sister and her husband took me to hear him preach in Greensboro at the Greensboro Fairgrounds,” recalls Polly Doby of Thomasville, referring to Graham’s 1951 crusade. “I was 14, and I accepted Jesus Christ under his preaching.”
Since then, Doby has been a faithful supporter of Graham’s ministry, she says. She watches him when he’s on television. She contributes to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. She even sends Graham a birthday card every year.
“I really do think he is one of God’s gifts to this earth,” she says.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579