Rev. Billy Graham influenced lives of two Chatham natives

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Rev. Billy Graham reached millions of people during his six-plus decades preaching from the pulpit, including two Chatham natives who followed the same vocation.

The world’s most famous evangelical preacher, who counseled U.S. presidents, died Wednesday at age 99.

Lifelong friends Dr. Leighton Ford, founder of the Leighton Ford Ministries, and retired pastor Dan Goldsmith, were teenage members of the Youth For Christ movement that invited Graham to speak in Chatham on Jan. 27, 1949 at the former Chatham Vocational School auditorium, where the Kiwanis Theatre is located today.

Ford, who was president of the youth group, recalled it was very powerful when Graham preached, but surprisingly only one person accepted his invitation to come forward for salvation.

“I was very disappointed that we didn’t see more of response, and afterwards Billy came over to the side of the platform and he knew I was downcast,” Ford told The Chatham Daily News during an interview from his Charlotte, N.C. home on Wednesday.

“I remember he put an arm around me and he said, ‘Leighton, I believe God has given you this call to help others know Christ and if you stay humble, I believe God is going to use you.’”

He added Rev. Graham then prayed for him.

Goldsmith, who now lives in Abbotsford, B.C., also remembers that night well nearly 70 years ago.

“It was supposed to be a big crowd and we had a blizzard,” he said. “It was a horrible night.”

He also recalled when Rev. Graham gave the invitation for salvation “nobody came forward, except an 11-year-old girl who happens to be my sister, Barbara.”

Goldsmith said Graham’s visit to Chatham came just months before he held a big crusade in Los Angeles in September 1949, which garnered national attention thanks to then media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Ford’s relationship with Graham would deepen over the years, beginning with him following the reverend’s advice to attend Wheaton College in Illinois, where he would meet and marry Graham’s younger sister Jean.

He was also invited to be part of Graham’s evangelical association where he served for 31 years before starting the Leighton Ford Ministries.

Ford recalls the early days of Graham’s crusades being like “a breath of fresh wind.”

Along with being well organized, he said, “It was almost like something that just sprang up through his ministry and that of many others in a post-World War . . . kind of a revival time.”

Goldsmith said he heard Graham preach in Chicago, Minneapolis and many times in Detroit, including the first time in 1946 at the old Olympiad Stadium, when his father took him and four other teens to the event.

“He had all kinds of enthusiasm . . . he was a fireball of a preacher back then,” Goldsmith said.

He remembers being on the platform for one of Graham’s crusades in Detroit.

Noting they didn’t have wireless microphones back then, Goldsmith said the song leader had to let out and bring back in the wire on a lapel microphone that Graham wore as he paced back and forth across the stage.

“It was comical,” he said.

Both Goldsmith and Ford were impressed with Graham’s sense of humility, despite being known to millions around the world.

Ford said Graham had a concern for the unity of Christians, adding the things he did, including helping to start seminaries, were to help draw Christians to work together.

“He wasn’t an empire builder, he was kingdom seeker,” Ford said. “I’ve passed that on to many of the young leaders I work with today.”

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