Editor’s note: The Rev. Billy Graham spoke in McDowell County on least two occasions, once in 1958 at the invitation of the McDowell Ministerial Association and again in 1960 at a joint baccalaureate service for the Marion City and McDowell County high schools. In 2005, The McDowell News spoke with some of those who attended the 1960 service about their remembrances of that event. The following is a lightly edited version of that story.
In June 2005 in New York City, the Rev. Billy Graham preached what he said would be his last crusade in the United States. The then 86-year-old evangelist, in frail health, was nearing the end of his 60 years of preaching the Gospel to millions around the world.
Some folks in McDowell remember when a younger Graham came here and delivered words of advice just as they were about to graduate from high school.
On the evening of Sunday, May 29, 1960, Graham, then 41, was the featured speaker at the joint baccalaureate service for the Marion City and McDowell County high schools.
The service was held at the stadium of Marion High School, now East McDowell Junior High. More than 3,000 graduating seniors, parents and friends filled the football stadium while others watched from their cars parked along State Street, according to an article in The McDowell News.
Shirley Arrowood Houck was one of those graduating seniors in the audience that night. She was 17 and about to get her diploma from Glenwood High School.
“ He was vibrant,” she said. “Can you imagine what it was like for a graduating senior 17 years old to have a speaker like that in McDowell County?”
By that time, Graham had met with Presidents Truman and Eisenhower at the White House. His successful 1949 tent revival in Los Angeles garnered national attention. Only three years before, the evangelist conducted his famous crusade in New York City, which lasted 16 weeks and drew an estimated 2 million people to Madison Square Garden.
Now, he was in Marion speaking directly to its young people.
While working on a class reunion, Houck came across the program for the 1960 service. It lists all the graduating seniors from Marion, Glenwood, Nebo, North Cove, Old Fort and Pleasant Gardens. Frank Stillwell led the singing of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the Rev. Jerome Honeycutt read the Scriptures. Hugh Beam introduced Graham.
In his sermon, the preacher from nearby Montreat urged McDowell’s youth to prepare themselves for a changing world by dedicating themselves to Jesus Christ.
“ You are going out into a world totally different from that in which I graduated in 1936 in Charlotte,” Graham said. “Can you tell me why you are a Christian, and how you know it? Every teenager in Russia can tell you how they are going to rule the world. They are more dedicated to error and a lie than we are to the truth.
“ In Africa, the youth have dedicated themselves to a new Africa, and they are going to bring it about. They have come from the Stone Age to modern civilization almost overnight. All over the world the young people are marching for one cause or another.”
Margaret Hughes of Marion remembers Graham speaking at an informal school assembly at Marion High in the mid-1950s. She was in the ninth-grade at the time. The evangelist read from the Bible and answered students’ questions, she said.
Houck said she and the other seniors were overwhelmed at the thought of someone so famous as Graham being their baccalaureate speaker. Her future husband Ronald was also one of the graduating seniors.
“ Most of us at that time had not been exposed to the real big world,” she said. “It was very, very special to us. It has been a cherished memory. It has been a topic of conservation for many, many people.”
Ann Lawing Clontz, another member of Glenwood’s Class of 1960, was also there on that May night in 1960. She says it was the first time that all of McDowell’s high schools came together for one baccalaureate service.
It wasn’t the first time she had heard Graham preach in person. Her parents took her and her brother to a crusade in Charlotte before the 1960 baccalaureate. But this evening was special for the entire county.
“ It was very impressive,” Clontz said. “All the schools wore their school colors. We were just very lucky to have someone like Billy Graham speak at our service.”
“ All over the world, the young people are marching for one cause or another,” Graham told the crowd. “Unless we dedicate ourselves, within our lifetime we will see our children enslaved by one ism or another. Give your life to Christ now when you are young. When you are older and your heart is hardened, it is difficult to come to Christ. Ahead lies frustration, confusion and hell if you have not dedicated your life to Jesus Christ.”
Merrill McEntire and his twin brother Jerrill also listened to Graham’s message. The 18-year-olds were about to graduate from Old Fort High. Throughout the years, Merrill has been impressed with Graham’s sincerity, integrity and lack of pretense.
“ He is a dynamic person because of his personal appearance and his sincerity in what he believes,” he said. “There was no put-on about him ever. I like that about him. He’s been a dynamic religious influence all the world.”
And millions around the world have listened as they come forward to accept Christ as their savior at the end of every sermon. It is a message he has repeated again and again.
“ If you want to get to Heaven, you must be willing to pay the price,” Graham said in 1960. “Take up the cross and follow Him. When you make that decision, everything else falls in line.”
A few days after the service, the graduating seniors got their diplomas and started their lives as adults. Although it has been 45 years, those who were there remember it well.
“ We had just never had something like that in the county,” Clontz said. “It is something you will always remember.”
“ I have always been a very spiritual person and this meant an awful lot to me,” Houck said.
They have followed Graham’s career and watched his television specials as he preached to more than 200 million people in 185 countries.
Merrill McEntire said he set the standard for the other evangelists who followed.
“ He’s been a remarkable person,” said Clontz. “I don’t remember hearing anybody say anything bad about Billy Graham.”