David Poling first met Billy Graham in the 1960s during a World Council of Churches meeting in Sweden and recalls talking with Graham about President Richard Nixon’s resignation during a visit with the charismatic Christian evangelist in Phoenix sometime in the ’70s.
But it was a quiet breakfast, just Poling and Graham in the restaurant of an Albuquerque motel, that is perhaps most vivid in Poling’s memory and most meaningful to him now, after Graham’s death.
It was 1975, the year Poling would become pastor of Albuquerque’s First Presbyterian Church. Graham was here in March of that year for a weeklong crusade at the University of New Mexico Arena, the Pit.
“I remember he asked for huevos rancheros,” said Poling, 89, who lives now at a Rio Rancho retirement community. “He said, ‘Dave, why don’t you offer the prayer.’ He asked that I pray for him and for (his wife) Ruth, who had just had an accident while hanging up a swing for their kids at their home in North Carolina.”
Poling said one of the things that impressed him most about Graham is that he could command the attention of thousands with his evangelical messages, and could talk effortlessly and comfortably about everyday matters with a few friends or associates.
“When he was in small group meetings or talking about other things, he would so easily shift the conversation to what one of his staff members was doing or ask me, ‘How is your Uncle Dan (prominent American clergyman Daniel A. Poling)?’ I think he was such a modest man.”
Graham, who died at his North Carolina home Wednesday at the age of 99, did crusades in Albuquerque in 1952, 1975 and 1998.
He packed the Pit in ’75 and ’98. But in 1952, the Pit didn’t exist. UNM’s Johnson Gym had not even been built. There was no building in town with the 7,500-person capacity required at that time for a Graham crusade.
Albuquerque’s Sanderson family, however, had a pile of wood and steel sitting on a lot on San Mateo just south of Central. They had planned to put up a roller-skating rink, but construction restrictions during World War II had delayed the building.
Community leaders who wanted to bring Graham to town met with the family, and a deal was made to erect a 55,000-square-foot building at a cost of $79,000. Later, it would become the Rainbow Gardens Roller Drome, but it was first known as the Billy Graham Tabernacle. Graham appeared in crusade there for most of November in 1952.
Chester “Chet” Stewart, 78, chairman emeritus of Albuquerque’s French Mortuary, who was 12 at the time, attended three or four of the crusades.
He said his grandfather, Chester T. French, was among the people involved in bringing Graham to Albuquerque in 1952 and that his grandfather signed the note to get the tabernacle built.
“Billy Graham used my grandmother’s (Elizabeth French) Plymouth to drive around Albuquerque,” Stewart said. He said there were a lot of people at the ’52 crusade.
“I remember Billy Graham being very cordial,” he said. “He was so welcoming. And because he was such a big deal, I was very touched by that.”
Stewart said he, his mother and father and at least two of his siblings got to meet with Graham in a small room before one of the crusade meetings.
“He shook hands with all of us. It was kind of exciting to meet him,” Stewart said. “My brother Bob asked him if he was related to (1940s-’50s Cleveland Browns quarterback great) Otto Graham. He said, ‘No, son, I’m not. But I wish I was.’ ”
Stewart said Graham was a compelling speaker.
“And I remember his eyes,” Stewart said. “They were very piercing eyes.”
Kay Law met Graham only once, but she, too, remembers his eyes.
Law is a California native and lives in that state now. She was an Albuquerque resident in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and her son Brian Nixon is an assistant pastor at Calvary Albuquerque church, where he oversees publishing and education.
Law was a child of 10 or 11, living in North Carolina, when she met Graham. She was a school friend of Graham’s daughter, Virginia, known as Gigi, and would visit the Grahams’ hilltop home in Montreat, N.C.
She recalls the time that Graham’s son, Franklin, 5 or 6 at the time, chased her with a dead snake up the driveway and into the Graham home.
She said Billy Graham was usually on the road when she was visiting at his house.
“He traveled a lot. His wife kept the home fires burning,” said Law, 72. “They had a pool that was downhill from the house. And one time when I was out around the pool, I remember him coming down the path and greeting me and looking me straight in the eye. He had very piercing, soulful eyes that kind of read your mind. Even as a child, you could feel that. He had a commanding presence, but he was very friendly and welcoming.”
David Poling wrote a book – “Why Billy Graham?” – first published in 1977.
Asked on Wednesday to sum up Graham’s life, he read a passage he had written for that book.
“One day the Christian world will learn of the passing of Billy Graham, and in that loss his critics within the church will discover how great he really was. For there is no other person in this century, in our time now, who has had the ability to reach so much of the world with the gospel.”