Dakota Detour



— PSALM 89: 15, 17

Returning to my desk, I looked over what the day's labors had accomplished. To my dismay — make that horror — I found that I had duplicated the same kind of patchwork dummy I used to make when I was city editor of the six-page Alaska Daily Press in Juneau (pop. 6,000) twenty years earlier. The press run of this new magazine of Billy's was expected to reach hundreds of thousands of readers, if not millions, on all six continents. The press run of our little Alaskan daily was 1,375 copies, and its Juneau "outreach" was one road extending twenty-one miles north and three miles south.1

    My first layout never made it into the Billy Graham Center archives. It went into the wastebasket before the artist could get a look at it.

    One fine day I was invited into the office of the general manager, treasurer, and corporate vice presidents of the BGEA, George Wilson. "Woody," he said, "you're a great guy, and you've written a terrific book about San Francisco, but this is Minneapolis, and there's nothing here for you to do yet. You can't edit a magazine until there's a magazine, and we can't have a magazine until the mailing list is computerized, and the computers aren't even here yet." He looked at me over his half-glasses. "We're not ready for you."

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    He smiled. "We have a film exhibitor going around to churches in South Dakota showing Mr. Texas and Oiltown, U.S.A., and he tells me there's a church out there that wants to have you come and preach to them for a week. He told them about you."

    "Really?" What did he say? " I asked, thinking about my notebooks crammed full of old sermons.

    Mr. Wilson ignored my question. "Would you like to do that, or wouldn't you?"

    Pressure! No alternatives! "Why not?"

    He nodded. "Preach the Word and give an invitation," he said. (Memo to myself: Forget the notebooks.) "Take an expense book and turn in your mileage." Wilson turned back to his desk. I left him thinking to myself, For this I left a nice portfolio in a sunny California parish with vacations in Yosemite?

    Pollock, South Dakota, was a brand-new town in a rich farming area near the North Dakota border. Completion of the giant Oahe Dam across the Missouri River had caused an exceptionally generous federal government to move the entire community to higher ground, with new housing, street lights, sewers, and even churches, while backed-up dam waters flooded the old town.

    The people of the congregation welcomed me with open arms. They genuinely seemed to like me — not that anybody had ever heard of me or read my book. All there was going for me was that I worked for Billy Graham, and that was enough. Everybody in South Dakota loved Billy Graham. Well, almost everybody.

    For a week I preached in that church night after night and tried my best to "do the work of an evangelist."2 The services were well supported and well attended, and the people were appreciative. They couldn't help it if I neither looked nor sounded like Billy Graham. How many of those present were Christians I could not know; but despite all the intercession, the response at the altar was nada.

    The chief problem was not my lack of understanding of biblical doctrine or poor preparation or the possible resistance of a rustic congregation or the acoustics or the magic or anything like that. The problem was my digestive tract. I was so stuffed with healthy, delicious,

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delectable Dakota cuisine the entire week that I felt like a balloon.

    Each day at noon and at six o'clock a farmer would drive up to the church manse where I was staying and take me in his pickup truck to the farmhouse where his beaming housewife would treat me to the most sumptuous meal I had ever eaten. Why? Because I was Billy Graham's friend, that's why. At one farmhouse I counted seventeen dishes being passed around the table. Roast beef, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, green beans, celery, carrots, corn-on-the-cob, cauliflower, asparagus, squash, parsnips, beets, lemon pie, coffee — you name it. And the risk of offending the housewife was too great — I had to eat and eat.

    Let me add that I found the people of South Dakota to be the salt of the earth. They loved God, they loved their church and their country, and, as I said, they loved Billy Graham. Many of them listened on Sunday afternoon to Billy's radio broadcast, The Hour of Decision.3 They peppered me with questions about the man and his team. They were fascinated to hear about the great meetings in Australia that verged on revival. Some of them were already planning to attend the 1960 crusade in Minneapolis.

    My host pastor, Reverend Benjamin Cedar, and his saintly wife, Berniece, had been enthusiastic supporters of Billy Graham for years. One of their sons, Paul, whom I met during that week with his young bride, Jeannie, later became a Graham crusade associate. More recently he served a term as president of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

     Because of the people's affection for my boss, all the hospitality of South Dakota seemed to be poured out on me. I gave up breakfasts and spent hours shaking down the luncheons and dinners by trudging the prairie roads. Dakota roads run north, south, east, and west. One day I walked clear to North Dakota, but it proved difficult going because every car that passed by tried to give me a lift.

    At the closing service on Sunday night a young lady visiting from Aberdeen, a friend of Paul and Jeannie, came forward at the invitation and gave her heart to Jesus Christ. At last, a soul! It was the

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Lord's doing, it was beautiful, and I was grateful. My vocation as a crusade evangelist was off the ground — but barely, like the Spruce Goose.

    Later a church in Stickney, South Dakota, beckoned me for another week of meetings. Again I enjoyed the fellowship and the high privilege of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but my memory fades as to the response to my closing invitations. The people were most gracious and assured me of their love for Billy Graham. They fed me magnificently and then took me pheasant hunting. In turn I promised every family in the entire congregation a year's free subscription to Billy's magazine when and if it appeared.

    Before invitations to preach came flooding in to me from all over the upper Midwest, my evangelistic ministry abruptly collapsed. I was whisked back to the Minneapolis headquarters to my family and a leaner diet.

    One more thing should be said about those visits to South Dakota. They convinced me that the reception the people gave me was symptomatic of the way people felt — and still feel — about Billy Graham all over North America. I could have gone to forty-nine other states and been welcome the same way. George Wilson was speaking the truth in 1960 when he told me that Billy Graham received mail from every post office in the United States. My aim in writing this book, apart from the sheer joy of it, is to try to explain why.

    Winola and I had decided to enroll our son Alexander in the Stony Brook School on Long Island for one year. That accomplished, we were assigned to take part in the Billy Graham crusades in Wheaton, Illinois, and Indianapolis, Indiana.

    At Wheaton my duties were limited to team activities, serving as counselor to inquirers at the meetings and lecturing in English classes at Wheaton College. On the college campus Winola and I had that thrill of meeting Ruth Bell Graham, Billy's wife, about whom we had heard so much. She herself is an honored alumna of the college, and she spoke briefly at a rally for coed students in the school gymnasium.

    After Ruth finished counseling with an inquirer, we introduced ourselves and were utterly charmed by her. Here was a lady of poise

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and distinction with a disarming smile and great literary accomplishments. We became firm friends. Not long afterward we were guests in their North Carolina home.

    In October I joined some Minneapolis staff members in traveling to Indianapolis, where we became part of a crusade that was warmly received by that capital city. I made it my business to master the inside operation of a Billy Graham crusade. To that end I visited executive committee meetings, counselor training classes (later called Christian Life and Witness classes), choir rehearsals, and usher briefing sessions. My shoe-leather investigation covered local church relations, special arrangements of open local prayer, visitation evangelism training, television evangelism sessions, follow-up, colaborer's corps, designation committee meetings, children's ministry, security, the audio system, parking arrangements, first aid, and press relations. I visited them all.

    Almost the entire working party of this huge endeavor, I discovered, was made up of volunteers, hundreds of them, all eager to serve the Lord in a wide spectrum of capacities.

    Indianapolis was a successful crusade from start to finish because at the heart and soul of the Hoosier people is a firm belief in God, a belief that the acids of modernity have yet to corrode. One memorable crusade evening saw the front rows filled with uniformed Indiana state troopers as special guests. A stirring moment occurred when Cliff Barrows invited them all to cluster around Billy Graham on the platform, and the vast audience stood and joined in singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."

    Two other incidents at the Indianapolis crusade of 1959 have stayed with me. On a Sunday afternoon in October I rode back from the racetrack to our hotel in a car with Billy Graham in the front seat. On the way he turned around and said to me, "My wife fell in love with your wife." Those words sent sweet music into my soul.

    The other incident took place at an informal party of team members and volunteer workers at the close of the crusade. Billy Zeoli, now president of a Christian motion picture company in Muskegon, Michigan, was at that time director of Indianapolis Youth for Christ and was active on the crusade committee. Tall, dark, and talented,

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he had managed to get hold of a blond wig and was wondering whether he dared repeat his popular imitation of Dr. Graham preaching in the presence of the man himself.

    After consulting others about it, Billy Zeoli finally went to Dr. Graham personally for approval. That gentleman's reaction was, "Billy, you go ahead and do it, and I'll be the first to laugh!" The performance was a roaring success.


1. A year after I left it, the newspaper ceased publication.

2. 2 Timothy 4:5 (KJV).

3. Billy Graham's weekly radio broadcast of The Hour of Decision continues today under the direction of John Lenning.

Chapter 9  ||  Table of Contents