16 Lesser-Known Facts About Billy Graham, Including When He Went Skinny Dipping With LBJ

Graham received an offer to host a nationwide Christian radio program in 1949 but said he would only do it if he could raise $25,000 in one night to start the process of buying air time.

The Rev. Billy Graham's prolific writings and widely broadcast sermons reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. In honor of the legendary evangelist's life, here's a list of facts you may not have known about the Southern Baptist minister.

1. Graham was the son of a dairy farmer in North Carolina. He grew up dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player but said of himself, "The talent for baseball obviously was not there."

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2. At the age of 15, Graham made a personal commitment to Christ at a tent revival meeting featuring traveling evangelist Mordecai Ham.

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3. Graham held his first citywide crusade in 1947 in Grand Rapids, Mich. The mass meetings attracted thousands of people in one venue to hear Graham speak. In all, Graham held more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories across six continents — reaching 215 million people, according to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

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4. Graham received an offer to host a nationwide Christian radio program in 1949 but said he would only do it if he could raise $25,000 in one night to start the process of buying air time. At a crusade in Portland, Ore., the funds came in and the radio program "Hour of Decision" got its start. The program is now aired on 1,200 radio stations, featuring messages from Graham and his son, Franklin.

5. In the summer of 1957, Graham preached nightly for 16 consecutive weeks in New York's Madison Square Garden to a packed audience. He shared the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Bible, substituting "New York" for the names of the cities of sin, The New York Times reported.

6. Graham was the author of 33 books, including his 1997 best-selling autobiography, Just As I Am.

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7. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association started the TV Telephone Ministry in 1980, for people to call in while watching the "Billy Graham Classics" programs on TV and talk to trained volunteers about topics including "drug abuse, depression, and God's will." The call center at BGEA headquarters has grown from a few phones to 200, with other call centers throughout the country.

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8. Graham's role as a counselor to American presidents is widely known. But perhaps most extraordinary is just how many presidents he has advised. Graham has met with every occupant of the Oval Office since 1950, starting with Harry Truman, which amounts to 12 of the 43 men who have ever served in the nation's highest office.

9. Shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office in 1963, he invited Billy Graham to the White House. The pair didn't have bathing suits and reportedly went skinny dipping in the pool.

10. Graham helped George W. Bush stop drinking. The first time the pair met, Bush, who was much younger at the time, was drunk after having several beers and glasses of wine, he told CNN. His father, George H.W. Bush, invited the preacher to the family's compound in Maine. The pair spoke about religion, which helped start a turning point in Bush's life.

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11. While at Wheaton College, Graham met future wife Ruth, the daughter of missionaries in China. They were married in 1943, until her death in 2007. After her death at the age of 87, Graham said, "When it comes to spiritual things, my wife has had the greatest influence on my ministry — she was the greatest Christian I ever knew."

12. To eliminate even the suspicion of infidelity, Graham vowed never to meet, travel or eat alone with any woman other than his wife.

13. During the Civil Rights era, Graham integrated his revival meetings, inviting both blacks and whites to attend. He said, "Christianity is not a white man's religion, and don't let anybody ever tell you that it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people. He belongs to the whole world."

14. He became a target of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s after planning an integrated crusade in Birmingham, Alabama in the aftermath of a church bombing that killed several black children. “The Ku Klux Klan went around and knocked out our signs,” Billy Graham recalled. “The State Police had to send policemen with us wherever we went—before my car and after my car. The police were also in the rooms around me because they were afraid we would get shot.”

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15. Graham was consistently listed on Gallup's poll of the "10 Most Admired Men in the World." Although he's never been No. 1, Graham has made the list 56 times since 1955.

16. Graham received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989.

BONUS | Billy Graham lived to 99. His favorite foods were lemon cake and canned Vienna sausages