When I first saw Billy Graham in 1959 at the MCG, he already seemed a living myth. That was 58 years ago.
I was 15 at the time, and my mate David wanted to know if I’d come with him. David was religious, with God-fearing parents. I wasn’t particularly, but I wanted to see the great man.
So we got out our school uniforms, put on our school caps, and travelled up from Geelong by train. When we got to the MCG we were bewildered by the crowds. I’d experienced the MCG before at the 1951 and 1952 grand finals, then a little fella with my parents.
But this! This was different. People travelling in every direction, mounds of them, men in suits with serious faces, women dolled up and with hats on. They may simply have been curious, but their dress sure made them look like religious fanatics.
Billy Graham – who died on Thursday at age 99 – was already a legend to me. He had all the attributes of a film star: tall, lean, full head of hair, very handsome, with a voice that made your hair stand on end.
He was photographed with almost all the US presidents of his day. I remember the one of Kennedy, two tall handsome men with Billy Graham just taller, smiling at the camera with their hands in their pockets.
At the MCG, we clambered over familiar steps, now covered with people, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of Billy. From where we stood, he looked tinier than Bernie Smith, the diminutive Geelong back pocket.
But even at that distance, Billy Graham retained that sense of majesty, jaw thrust forward, fist banging the podium.
“Is it right? Is it right,” I remember him asking, for what reason I cannot remember. I can still hear that sharp, booming, American voice. “Is it right?”
We had no hope of getting a seat. We couldn’t even see the seats. Just people, everywhere, occasionally bursting into applause. This was different to a football match. Later I realised why.
There were 143,000 people at the event – an MCG record that stands to this day. Grand finals normally attract around 100,000, with the biggest – Carlton v Collingwood in 1970 – coming in at 122,000.
What was my impression? Well, officially, it was just a man booming on about God. But it was as if only he had the licence to do that.
He was eloquent, fiery, spicy. If I could make a criticism, aged 15, I would say he didn’t find anything too funny.
But he was famous, and he was American, which in those days was special to us.
I don’t know how long he spoke for, but towards the end he asked us to make a commitment to God. “Stand up, if you are committed to God,” he said.
Well, we were already standing. Billy started to count those who were standing. “There’s 200 standing, 500, 1000 …” His voice meandered on.
As we turned to leave the stadium, I looked at David. ”Would you have stood?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he replied. “Would you?”
“I s’pose so,” I said, looking round to see if anyone was listening. “He’s pretty powerful.”
But to this day, I don’t know whether it was because of God or because he was an American celebrity.
Billy Graham was rather like that.