JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – During the Rev. Billy Graham's long public life, he spent a lot of time in Jacksonville. In the early 1960s, he hosted two crusades, then returned in 2000 to hold a four-night revival at what was then Alltel Stadium where hundreds of thousands heard the evangelist spread the gospel.
The humble Baptist pastor who became know America's best known evangelist delivered his first sermon in 1937 at Bostwick Baptist Church in Palatka. He was only 17 years old.
Cecil Underwood, a lay pastor at Bostwick Baptist who invited Graham to the pulpit for the first time, reportedly told him: "Boy, if you're ever going to amount to anything, you'd better do better than that."
Irene McManis, who recounted the story to WJXT in 1997, was impressed with the young Graham.
"He could relate to the children, to the older people, to the well-educated who came for Bible classes," McManus said.
Two years after that first sermon, Graham was ordained at Peniel Baptist Church, also in Putnam County.
Nearly a quarter century later, the preacher who was then known around the world, returned to Northeast Florida for two revivals in Jacksonville in two years. Nearly 20 years passed before Graham would preach again in the River City..
The first night of his 2000 crusade, Gov. Jeb Bush and Mayor John Delaney welcomed Graham to the stage, and the throngs who gathered to hear him called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It was something I needed a lot,” said Debbie Trent in 2000 as she volunteered in the crusade office.
And at the time, Pastor Gary Wiggins of the Evangel Temple Assembly of God was quoted as saying that Graham’s message resonates because, “There is more that unites us than divides us.”
Though North Carolina was his home, Graham started his career in Florida and visited the area many times. He was the keynote speaker when Mayo Clinic Jacksonville opened in 1986.
In Graham's later years, he returned ther for medical treatments and at least two surgeries. He said he chose Mayor because of what he called his faith in the doctors and nurses at Mayo. Those doctors and nurses treated him through the years for recurring infections.
In 2014, I had the privilege of talking with Graham’s grandson, Will, who was in town to pave the way for the Rev. Franklin Graham to preach at Jacksonville’s Greater Jacksonville Festival of Hope the following year. Will Graham said that his grandfather was enjoying life at home and spending time with family -- something he rarely got to do through the years that he spent most of his time traveling the world to spread the gospel.
I remember Graham saying the only thing his grandfather loved as much as spreading the word of God was his family.