Back when I was a young reporter-editor at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the early 1980s, I got to do interviews with all the people I admired.

One of those people was Billy Graham.

I got in touch with his organization when I heard he was coming to Southern California, and I was delighted to hear back. I was instructed to meet him at the Orange County Airport, which was tiny back then. It’s now the beautiful John Wayne Airport – many times the size. Back then, you could walk up to the plane as the passengers disembarked, if you can believe it. You met them on the tarmac!

So, I’m standing outside the plane waiting for the legend to climb down the steps. And I see him. He’s wearing dark glasses for disguise. I greet him, and it was like meeting an old friend. He was so gracious after flying in from who knows where.

We went into the terminal to collect his bags and meet his driver. The entire time, he’s interviewing me. Same thing on the ride to the hotel. In fact, he offered me a job at Christianity Today after knowing me for 15 minutes.

I explained that, while I was and am a Christian, God had called me into secular journalism so I could do interviews with people like him for Christians and non-Christians alike to read.

Then we started talking about my newspaper.

It was owned by the Hearst chain – the flagship, in fact. He recalled the famous story about how his career in evangelism got started with one memo from William Randolph Hearst, the original inspiration for “Citizen Kane.”

The memo was dispatched to his editors at his various papers. It consisted of two words: “Puff Graham.”

That meant, write stories about this up-and-coming evangelist, which must have seemed odd to the editorial staff – even back then. Nevertheless, Billy Graham told me that his tent meetings took off after those instructions were given and apparently followed dutifully.

Billy Graham’s star began to rise.

Most people know the rest of the story. He went on to preach all over the world, reaching 2.2 billion people with the message of the gospel – repentance, grace and salvation.

I thought I was going to get maybe an hour with this living legend. Instead, we chatted for hours. He was so cordial, so interested in other people. We talked about mundane things for most of the visit – just like two people getting to know each other, rather than interviewer and interviewee.

His driver and escort several times reminded him that he might need some rest. But the reverend wouldn’t hear of it. He was genuinely enjoying himself.

I remember him telling me his fitness regimen. He didn’t jog any more. But he took long walks – “real fast walks” to keep in shape.

What can I say? He was just such a normal, regular guy. But, when you looked at him, it was BILLY GRAHAM – one of the most familiar faces and voices in the whole world, one of the most admired men on the planet.

I’ll never forget it.

He was the real deal. What you saw was what you got.

We commiserated about church life, pastors, the Bible, the presidents he had met. He held nothing back. I swore that day was never going to end.

There wasn’t any pretense with him. There was no ego detectable. He was just as friendly and open and unguarded as any man I ever met.

Encounters like that can never be forgotten.

Here I was a 25- or 26-year-old punk sitting with Billy Graham, and he made me feel like the only other person in the world for four or five hours.

That was Billy Graham. God bless him.

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