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Rev. Billy Graham's rise began in Minnesota

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Billy Graham
Rev. Billy Graham speaks to a crowd of more than 70,000 at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 26, 1996.
Peter A. Harris | AP 1996

U.S. evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, who counseled presidents and preached to millions across the world from his native North Carolina to communist North Korea during his 70 years on the pulpit, died Wednesday at the age of 99. 

A spokesperson for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said Graham died at his home in Montreat, N.C. Graham was born in North Carolina and educated outside Chicago, but Graham spent four years as president of a small Christian college in the Twin Cities. During that brief period at Northwestern, Graham became an international superstar. It was a time of unprecedented success for him, but one also marred by failure.

It was a job he turned down several times before. Graham wanted to focus on evangelism. But the school's founder, William Bell Riley, persisted. Riley's health was failing. By August of 1947, he was confined to bed. And Graham was summoned to Riley's home in Golden Valley.

"He looked at me with fire in his eyes that day. He said, 'As David was appointed King of Israel, before David realized he was to be the king, I now appoint you.' I said, 'Dr. Riley,' I said 'I don't want to go to Northwestern. I realize it's a tremendous opportunity.' But I said 'I cannot turn a request like that down. I would not be true to God,'" Graham said.

Riley died four months later, and in January of 1948, Graham became what was believed to be the youngest college president in U.S. history. He was only 28. 

After overseeing the completion of Memorial Hall, Graham realized another of Revend Riley's dreams — a Christian radio station. 

Launching KTIS cost $44,000. That would be close to half a million today. Former Northwestern Professor Mark Lee will never forget how Graham raised the money.

"He went to the students and simply told the story that we want to get KTIS on the air, but we have to have a tower, and we don't have the money for it. Will you raise it?" Lee said. "And the students agreed to raise it."

Billy Graham
Evangelist Billy Graham speaks to 18,000 messengers in Dallas, June 13, 1974, on the closing night of the Southern Baptist Convention.
AP 1974

The station went on the air in February of 1949, and later that year Graham achieved an even greater success in Los Angeles.

It was one of Graham's evangelical crusades. And it caught the attention of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst sent a telegram to all his papers that instructed them to "Puff Graham," and they did.

"He was internationally famous after Los Angeles," said Lee. "The following year, people who followed Graham filled up the college. The place was jam-packed. It went 600, 700 students to 1,300 in less than two years."

Graham's celebrity raised the school's profile, but it also took him away from the day-to-day tasks of running the place. While Graham embarked on crusades around the country, back in Minnesota, Lee says Northwestern's finances were flagging.

"Graham told me directly. He says 'I can raise money for anything except higher education,' " Lee said.

Pay was so low many professors had second jobs, and they became restless. 

In early 1952, while Graham was on crusade in Washington D.C., the faculty held a meeting. They elected professor Lee to be their representative. He flew to Washington, met with Graham and laid out the problems facing Northwestern.

"Out of that meeting, he decided that it was best for him to resign, and that was true. It was. He wasn't a college administrator. He was an evangelist. That's what he was. Here you're asking a doctor to trim your fingernails!" Lee said.

Graham was freed to devote all his energy to the crusades. But he maintained a connection to Minnesota for decades after he left. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was founded during Graham's four years in Minnesota. It kept its headquarters in Minneapolis for more than half a century. But in 2003, the association moved to North Carolina. Land was cheaper there, and Graham needed room to expand his ministry.