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Billy Graham and North Carolina: The affection was mutual

MONTREAT, N. C. – While the Rev. Billy Graham’s travels have taken him as far away as the Soviet Union and China, he always came back to his native North Carolina, a place of refuge, reflection and spiritual refueling.

In the process, the most well-known evangelist in American history was one of North Carolina’s favorite sons.

The highway that runs past the world headquarters of his evangelical empire in Charlotte called Billy Graham Parkway. The chapel in the quiet mountain village of Montreat where he was married in 1943, is named in his honor. In 2011, the poll found him to be the holiest person in the state, beating TV star Andy Griffith and the University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith.

Graham, who died Wednesday at 99, and will be buried in his library in Charlotte next week Friday, and spent the last years of his life in his secluded home in Montreat, about 100 miles to the west, where, as he did even in his heyday, he worked on his sermons, or quietly fell on the local church virtually unnoticed.

At the end of his family said, he saw his North Carolina heritage as an essential part of who he was.

“My father was a very humble person. He saw himself as a celebrity. He considered himself a farm boy from Mecklenburg County,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said Thursday on the “Today” show.

North Carolina is the site of the beginning and the end of his earthly life, bookending trips to many countries to preach the Gospel. Born on Nov. 7, 1918, Graham grew up on a Charlotte dairy farm that is now the site of office buildings. It was in Charlotte in 1934 that a 16-year-old Graham to Jesus, on a journey of revival.

Through the years, he would come back regularly for the crusades, including one in 1995 for a full crowd at the football stadium.

On the road,” he would preach in a certain city or place, and he always liked to say that if he had to live somewhere else, it would be there, but ‘My house in North Carolina,'” recalls Cliff Barrows, Graham’s old music director, who died in 2016. “His heart is in North Carolina.”

Graham broke ground in Charlotte on the new headquarters for his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2002, moving from Minnesota, where he once worked as a college administrator. “This move to Charlotte anchors us firmly to our roots,” he said at the time.

It was Montreat, though, that was his home, where he raised his five children, where his wife’s family had roots, and where the two were married in what is now Graham Chapel on the campus of Montreat College.

“This was a place of refuge for Billy. It was a place where he could rest and recover between his international travels. You can imagine the demands on his life,” college President Paul Maurer said.

Around Montreat, resident Brad Hestir said, Graham would sometimes slip into a church service to participate as a servant without drawing attention to themselves. “You would at the end of a church service realize he was here on the balcony,” Hestir said.

“The man was for the last few decades, and the whole city was organized around protecting that privacy,” said Hestir’s wife Jean Norris. “They were known as down-to-earth, sweet people.”

North Carolina took pride in the home of “America’s Pastor.” This week, after his death, video billboards along North Carolina interstates to pay their respects with messages such as one with Graham’s name against a heavenly blue sky with a white dove.

Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett said that it is appropriate that the city chose for Graham’s name in the 1980s for the expressway, which serves as a main route to the airport.

“There is no better symbol for a city in movement, a city on the make, a city to fly to a new place. And the trip comes from the roots of this place, and Billy Graham is a powerful, real part of those roots,” Hanchett said.

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