Covering Billy Graham: “I Know Who You Are. I Pray for You Every Day”

MONTREAT, N.C. — The Rev. Billy Graham, the magnetic, movie-star-handsome preacher who became a singular force in postwar American religious life, a confidant of presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, died Wednesday at 99.

By Wesley G. Pippert

When Billy Graham came to Chicago in the early 1960s, UPI assigned me to cover the news conference in which he would announce his plans for a crusade.

I lead my story with a pronouncement Graham made about the world situation. My editor said I missed the lead; we put out a new lead that had Graham saying he had come to Chicago “to preach the Gospel on every street corner and in every neighborhood.” The story made the New York Times.

UPI covered his campaign each night. Sometimes I made reporting assignments and I pulled a sly evangelistic trick of assigning for that night’s crusade a reporter who I felt needed to hear Graham’s message. “Gene, when you’re coming in tomorrow night, could you stop by Comiskey Park and catch Graham?”

Later, when I was going through turmoil in my life, I saw Graham at a meeting in Washington. I went to his table to greet him. When I introduced myself, he said, “I know who you are. I pray for you every day.”

I got permission from Grant Dillman, UPI’s Washington bureau chief, to go to North Carolina to interview Graham on his 50th anniversary as an evangelist. I took along Bobby, my carefree brother-in-law who lived in Champaign, Illinois. The interview went along fine and at one point Graham mentioned “the wind has been blowing” in his recent crusades.

Affable Bobby, joining in, said, “Really? We’ve been having some stormy weather around Champaign, too.“ Graham turned slightly and said that he had meant the Holy Spirit.  I’m told Bobby considered that day the time of his conversion.

Wes Pippert covered state capitals, Congress, and the White House. He spent nearly 30 years with United Press International, serving first in the Bismarck and Pierre capital bureaus in the Dakotas and then in Chicago before coming to Washington, D.C. in 1966. He covered three presidential campaigns, the Carter White House, was UPI’s principal on the Watergate story, and his final UPI assignment was as Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem. From 1989 to 2012, he directed the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington Program.

P.S. from Jack: I heard about Wes in 1960 when I started my journalism career in UPI’s Minneapolis bureau and he was covering the Dakotas for UPI. “He covers North Dakota and South Dakota and on Sundays he preaches,” I was told. Our paths crossed again in Washington when I was at the Washingtonian and he still was with UPI. When I got married in 1975, we didn’t have a church wedding but Wes officiated our backyard ceremony. That marriage worked out so well that in 2010, when our daughter Jeannie got married, also not in a church ceremony, Wes officiated at that happy marriage, too.

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