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Local residents remember the Rev. Billy Graham

SALISBURY — Rod Kerr credits a chance encounter with the Rev. Billy Graham at a Baptist bookstore in Charlotte with changing the course of his life.

Kerr, now the minister of education at First Baptist Church in Salisbury, was a high school student working at the bookstore. He sold Graham a Bible while the evangelist was on his way to a crusade. He needed a certain Bible translation and had stopped by the bookstore.

“I had seen him on television so many times. I was a churchgoer. My family always watched him,” Kerr said.

Kerr, a senior in high school at the time, watched as Graham moved through the bookstore.

“He was gracious, while businesslike. I realized this man was all over the world,” he said.

Kerr knew Graham was in Charlotte for the crusade and decided to attend with some friends that same night. He’d never attended a crusade before. The next day, his English teacher pulled him aside. Kerr didn’t know what for but believed he was in trouble.

His teacher had seen him on television and wanted Kerr to know he was proud of his decision to give his life to Christ.

Kerr described what his teacher had seen, which was typically how Graham’s crusade services ended — with an altar call. The service was held at what was then Charlotte Coliseum.

Graham said into a microphone, “Even if you are in the balcony and you brought friends with you, they will wait on you.”

Kerr said he had struggled with his faith over the years, but he knew that altar call was an opportunity to change his life. A TV camera followed him all the way from the balcony to the floor until he stood in front of Graham.

“That event changed my life. I was there with a very simple presentation of the Gospel,” Kerr said.

He believes he wasn’t called to preach but to listen, and he would go on to become a pastoral counselor for more than 20 years.

“For a lot of us preacher boys, I was just impressed with his accountability to his partners,” Kerr said.

He said he remembers thinking Graham was a man who was living out his calling, and that was something he thought he’d like to do.

“I was so taken by who he was, not just the man in the pulpit, but the man who came in to get that Bible. He was so gracious. He was very gracious,” Kerr said.

Kerr spent 25 years in the ministry, traveling to Baptist hospitals in South Carolina, as well as holding family life conferences for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

“He was a real role model. I try to model his simplicity. What a master at being able to tell the truth,” Kerr said.

“The power of his message was awfully important. He was a simple man but not simplistic,” Kerr said.

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In 1960, Bob Harris was an 18-year-old from a small mountain school in McDowell County, just east of Asheville. He never would have imagined that Billy Graham would preach at his baccalaureate service for graduation.

Harris, who lives in Rowan County, graduated from Old Fort High School and was among 60 students in his class. In that year, all six high schools in the county had a combined baccalaureate service for fewer than 400 students total.

He’d watched the preacher on television a number of times, but it was the first time Harris had ever seen Graham in person.

“All I can remember is we were fortunate and special for this to occur because, to my knowledge, he had not done it before or did it again for a bunch of little schools,” Harris said.

Harris said he doesn’t recall any specifics about what Graham said, but his mother took notes.

“Billy Graham’s name was always positive and surrounded with integrity, and I guess that would probably describe my feelings,” Harris said.

He said when he heard of Graham’s death, it brought back memories of that service and the type of man Graham was.

Harris’ daughter made her profession of faith at a Billy Graham church service in Atlanta 40 years ago when she was about 16 years old, he said.

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Others in the community have fond memories of their own encounters with Graham.

Kim Jones said via Facebook that she doesn’t consider herself a religious person, but she was fortunate enough to attend a crusade in Charlotte with a youth group from North Hills in the early 1970s.

“This man was truly a man of God,” Jones said.

She said she didn’t see Graham as someone who was there to collect money in order to live lavishly while his followers didn’t.

“I have had the utmost respect for him my entire life, because his intentions were pure, unlike so many others. Sadly, they don’t make men like Billy Graham anymore, or if they do, they rarely are heard about. He will be sorely missed in the religious community and beyond,” Jones said. 

David Potts said he remembers a crusade in Shea Stadium where Graham said he was the first man to ever “pitch” from second base.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.

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