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For over 40 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives.With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?Look for a new Tales from the Trail column every Friday.

A Prayer With Billy Graham Turns Out To Be A Bit Messy

Jim Nolan

One of the most memorable interviews I've done in my career was with a man who was not a politician, but was a spiritual adviser to many occupants of the White House over the years.

Billy Graham, the world's most famous TV evangelist, who has spread his Gospel message to billions on television and in person all over the world since starting his ministry by pitching tents in a Los Angeles parking lot in 1949, is now 99 years old and living in retirement in his mountaintop home near Asheville, North Carolina.

In Cincinnati, most people remember the four sweltering hot nights in June 2002, when the then-83-year-old Graham, in a city where racial divisions were running high, preached a message of reconciliation to 201,600 people who crowded into Paul Brown Stadium over the four nights.

Not as many, probably, remember Graham's previous crusade in Cincinnati – in October 1977, where he packed Riverfront Stadium for four nights.

Credit White House/Reagan Presidential Library
President Reagan presents Billy Graham with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983

I'll never forget it. It was when I managed to get a one-on-one interview with the man himself. An improbable feat for a 24-year-old rookie reporter.

About two months earlier, I had been hired by the Troy Daily News in Miami County, which, at the time, had a circulation of about 11,000 daily and maybe 17,000 or so on their brand-new Sunday edition.

I spent five years at the Troy Daily News, even though I was making dirt wages most of the time. I didn't care. I had fun. I loved the people there; still stay in touch with many of them.

And the Troy Daily News was a little newspaper that didn't seem to know it was little.

They would let me cover just about anything – the Democratic National Convention in New York in 1980, Pope John Paul II's first visit to America in October 1979, and the Carter-Reagan debate in Cleveland, which I wrote about in this space last week.

We had run some stories from our wire service, UPI, about the upcoming Graham crusade in Cincinnati; and we were getting regular press releases from the Graham organization.

One of releases mentioned the possibility of interviews with Billy Graham himself.

I was intrigued.

I told my editors I was going to contact the ministry and try to set something up with Graham in Cincinnati, which was about a 75 mile drive down Interstate 75 from Troy.

Yeah, go ahead. Good luck. That was the response I got.

As big as the Troy Daily News acted sometimes, they realized they were small potatoes compared to the big city newspapers and the network TV affiliates.

My chances, I think, were rated slim to none; and slim had left town.

I called a number at the Graham Ministries headquarters in Charlotte and spoke to a very friendly woman in the press office. I explained what I would like to do and that I knew there were many people in our circulation area who planned to come to Cincinnati for the Billy Graham Crusade or would like to.

Yes, I think we can arrange that, she said.

I was dumbfounded. I had fully expected to be politely blown off.

Excuse, me, I'm sorry, I said, but did you just say you could arrange that?

She said, yes, and suggested a time – the morning of Graham's first night at Riverfront Stadium – in his hotel suite in downtown Cincinnati.

Yes, we'll put it on the schedule, she said. I'm sure Rev. Graham will be pleased to meet you!

I went back into the newsroom and told the editors. There was some elation on their part, some atta boys, and everybody went back to work.

Of course, I had to tell my parents – good church-going United Methodists that they were. My mother, in particular, was delighted – she enjoyed watching the ordained Southern Baptist minister's crusades on television and loved the booming singing voice of George Beverly Shea, who sang gospel songs at Graham Crusades for many decades.

I think, in her eyes, I had finally made something of myself – Her little boy was going to interview Billy Graham!

The night before, I got in the rusted-out 1969 Olds 88 I was driving at the time and drove down to Sharonville, where I got a cheap motel room so I could get up early and be at Graham's downtown hotel early in the morning – the Westin on Fountain Square, as I recall.

I got my wake-up call in the motel; showered; dressed in a suit jacket and tie (not my standard work attire, then or now); and started down I-75 to downtown.

I arrived at the hotel ahead of time; killed some time drinking coffee in the lobby and reading the Enquirer.

Then, it was time to go to the suite.

I knocked on the door; and was greeted by a young man who worked for the Crusade.

Come in and have a seat, he said, Rev. Graham will be with you in just a moment.

I sunk down into a comfy arm chair; there was an identical one sitting a few feet away. In between was a stand with a silver tray, loaded with various kinds of Danish, croissants, and fancy scoops of butter on little doily-covered plates.

I was asked if I would like something to drink. Coffee? Tea? Orange Juice? Water?

I choose black coffee; and it appeared almost instantly.

So, too, did Billy Graham.

He came striding out of the main bedroom, with a welcoming smile and outstretched hands.

Welcome, my friend! Welcome! Your name is Howard, yes? Good to meet you!

And grabbing my right hand with both of his, he gave me what I can only describe as an extremely hearty handshake.

He sat in the chair next to me, asked for some juice and rubbed his hands together.

So, what would you like to talk about, my friend?

I started rattling off questions. I wanted to know his thoughts on the role of religious faith in hard economic times such as the nation was facing then. I wanted to know his views on civil rights as a minister born in 1918 in the segregated South.

I wanted to know about his reputation as "the minister to presidents," having had a personal relationship with American presidents since Eisenhower. And I was particularly interested in his relationship with the then-current president, Jimmy Carter, who was, like him, raised a Southern Baptist.

Graham was not only pleasant, but I had the sense that he was listening to what I had to say and had respect for me, even though I was a very young and relatively inexperienced journalist.

After about 40 minutes, an aide came out and said we would have to wrap up because Rev. Graham had other interviews lined up.

Graham asked me if I had a church background; I told him, yes, I had been raised in the United Methodist Church, but admitted that I was not as active in it as I had been in the past.

Someday, my friend, you will feel the need to go back to your church roots, he said.

Then, he asked me something I did not expect.

Would you mind if we ended our talk with a prayer?

That was a first in my young journalism career – an interview subject asking me to pray with him.

Somewhat flustered, I said, yes, of course.

He reached across the table with the sweet rolls and butter, laid both of his hands on mine and began to pray.

What he didn't realize was that he had jammed my right hand into the tray, pressing it down into an apple Danish and squashing a medallion of butter.

As he prayed, I could feel the fruit and the butter oozing between my fingers.

After a few minutes, he said amen and let me raise my hands. He immediately saw the mess all over my right hand.

Oh, my! Did I do that? I am so very sorry.

I told him it was no problem.

He summoned his aide. Take Howard to the bathroom where he can clean off his hands. It seems I made mess praying.

I went; washing and drying my hands.

When I came back, he was still apologizing as I got my coat and headed toward the door. 

That was so clumsy of me. I'm really very sorry.

Reverend Graham, don't think anything of it. Praying with you was worth getting my hands a little messy.

And, believe me, I meant it.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.