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A Reluctant Leader Leaves A Legacy

By Jenny Collins ’05 on Saturday, February 28, 2009


This article first appeared in the spring 2009 Pilot magazine.

As a modern-day messenger for Jesus Christ, the Reverend Billy Graham’s evangelistic ministry has spanned seven decades and touched hundreds of millions of people around the world, from prisoners to prime ministers, refugees to royalty.

But in the early days of his ministry, Billy Graham accepted an unlikely position as president of a college. Unlikely, that is, to all except the man determined to make Graham his successor.

First impressions

As one of the 20th century’s leading architects of fundamentalism, Dr. William Bell Riley was a well known evangelist, author and theologian, not only in the Midwest, but throughout the country. As pastor of Minneapolis’ First Baptist Church and founder and president of the Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School, Riley saw in Graham more than just a young and fiery Southern evangelist.

In the eyes of Riley, Graham represented God’s clear choice as the man to whom he would pass the torch of leading Northwestern. The two men likely first met when Riley heard Graham as a student at Florida Bible Institute, where Riley frequently vacationed.

“Dr. Riley had been very impressed by this young man who went out to the woods [at FBI] to pray and to preach,” recalls Luverne Gustavson ’39, secretary to Riley and later Graham, becoming the latter’s personal secretary for 14 years during his evangelistic ministry.

Later, First Baptist Church would be the first pulpit in Minneapolis from which Billy Graham spoke. George Wilson ’36, college business manager, wanted to begin a Youth for Christ (YFC) movement in Minneapolis and brought Graham, then one of YFC’s main evangelists, to the city to preach at a rally in 1945.

“When I was an evangelist for Youth for Christ, George Wilson invited me to come to Minneapolis,” recalled Billy Graham in an October 2007 letter to Northwesern, “and it was during that period of time that Dr. Riley became interested in me. He almost became obsessed with the idea that I should be his successor at Northwestern. While I was honored, I knew I was not qualified and turned him down on a number of occasions.”

Although Graham was on Riley’s short list, he wasn’t the only choice. Several others were considered including Torrey Johnson, president of YFC, and other well-credentialed pastors from larger cities on the East and West coasts and even in England. Each one, however, was passed over or turned down the offer.


Riley, in his mid-80s and in frail health, was determined to name a successor and continued to pursue Graham to take over Northwestern. Graham, however, was committed to full-time evangelism with YFC. He even suggested other men for the job yet eventually acquiesced to a vague leadership role as “vice president at large.”

But this was not enough for Riley. In an age of modernism, Riley, the fundamentalist force who had persuaded William Jennings Bryan to take on the Scopes Trial in the 1920s, was quite accustomed to controversy. One thing he was not used to, however, was being told no.

“I believe everyone knows,” wrote Mrs. Marie Acomb Riley to Pilot readers after her husband’s death, “that after nights of prayer for a successor, God laid Mr. Graham upon Dr. Riley’s heart…he knew this young man had positive convictions and would keep the [Northwestern] Schools true to God and His Word.”

Riley’s intentions indeed were no secret. He invited Graham to speak at the Northwestern Bible Conferences on Medicine Lake, an invitation which Graham accepted on several occasions. Riley recruited Graham to write for The Northwestern Pilot and published Graham’s speaking schedule in the monthly publication (known then as “America’s Bible study magazine”).

But Graham’s life as an evangelist kept him on the move. In early 1946 he and his YFC team spent one month touring 12 European countries, preaching to thousands and meeting with hundreds of clergymen. That fall, Graham and the team returned to Europe for a six month evangelistic tour.

The overwhelming response of the people signaled that the continent trying to recover from World War II was ripe for spiritual revival. Both Graham and his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, were sure of his calling to a life of evangelism.

Accepting the call

In 1947, the nearly 29-year-old Graham agreed to visit the Rileys at their home, where the elderly man’s illness couldn’t squelch his determination, even on his deathbed.

Graham remembers, “I was visiting his home in Golden Valley. It was in the middle of a thunderstorm and he and Mrs. Riley talked earnestly and tearfully with me. I think he thought he was dying, and he wanted a commitment from me that I would become at least interim president in case of his death, which I promised I would.”

A biography of Billy Graham by John Pollock describes Riley’s final ultimatum: “‘Billy, you are the man to succeed me…. You will be disobeying God if you don’t! …I’m leaving this school to you as Elijah gave his mantle to Elisha.'”

To Graham, Riley was a spiritual giant—with the gravitas and statesman-like rhetoric to match. Graham agreed to Riley’s wishes, under the condition that he could maintain his commitment to evangelism with YFC. Riley was more than satisfied.

Graham continued on the evangelism circuit and was in Hattiesburg, Miss. when he received a call at midnight on December 5, 1947.

“I got a telephone call from George Wilson that Dr. Riley had just died,” recalled Graham “and I was expected to preach his funeral. I knew that there were many clergy who had been his close colleagues for a number of years and who might be expected to preach his funeral.

“As I flew to Minneapolis I asked the Lord to help me in preparing. Dr. Riley was eighty-six, and I took the first Psalm and its eighty-six words, and presented the Gospel and eulogized Dr. Riley.”

After the Christmas break, Northwestern’s 50-member board of directors honored their founder’s wishes and named Graham interim president of the growing Northwestern Schools, which then included a Bible school, a theological seminary and a liberal arts college.

At 29, not much older than some of the WWII veterans who were students, Graham became the youngest college president in history.

Students’ admiration

Northwestern students immediately took to their new leader’s magnetism and his passion for souls.

“I greatly admired Billy from his first introduction in Northwestern Chapel,” said Allen Dale Golding ’50, senior class president for the Bible school. “He was an impressive presence, even before he was world famous.”

Kyle Wilson ’51 explained that “with Dr. Riley’s platform built for Billy Graham and his coming, the students were fully aware this was an anointing from God and a very special time.”

His wife, Pauline (Hutchens ’51) Wilson, recalls an early memory of Graham when she was sitting in the lobby before chapel. “He came in the door with his entourage—the executives—he had such a presence—he was tall, blonde and handsome. He said hello. And,” she said with a smile, “I haven’t forgotten it.”

Although Graham’s demanding schedule taxed his health, students and those close to him said he never appeared to be in a hurry. “He really threw himself into the social, spiritual, everyday contact with students to the best of his ability,” said Layton Brueske ’51. “How he did it, I don’t know—he was a busy man.”

“He’d be away when he had a crusade, but then he’d come back,” said Kyle Wilson. “He was a part of the family. He went up and down the halls like one of us.”

Gustavson was impressed with her new boss “because he was so gracious to everybody and he always prayed with everybody. Nobody came into his office without him praying with them before they left.”

Forrest Williams ’50, president of the student body, remembers Graham and a dozen student government officers down on their knees praying together in a circle in Graham’s office. “His spiritual walk was key in every way,” said Williams. “He was a very open person, oozed personality and wasn’t complicated. He liked people and people liked him.”

Inexperienced, but enthusiastic

The majority of Northwestern’s faculty and staff also responded positively to the schools’ new leader, whose charisma was as tall as his stature.

“I can’t think of a single person who wasn’t excited. The last couple years Dr. Riley wasn’t active at all since he was bedridden. To have this dynamic person…brought a whole new breath of life,” said Jerry Beavan Th.M., Th.D., college registrar, professor, managing editor for the Pilot and news announcer on KTIS. He later worked closely with Graham at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) for 15 years.

“He was handed an institution with three schools and told to run it,” said Beavan. “It would be like if you were suddenly put in the seat of an airplane and told to fly it. And he’d had no training in that area at all. But he had some great vision.”

Graham’s lack of administrative experience, however, did cause a small problem early on. During his second day on the job, one staff member approached Graham with a request. The woman entered Graham’s office and told him she needed a raise in salary. “What do you make?” Graham asked. She stated the amount. “You certainly do! I’ll see that you get one,” Graham replied.

“I didn’t know that that would grow like tinpins through the rest of the faculty and staff, and everybody had to have a raise,” recalled Graham at Northwestern’s 75th anniversary. “And we didn’t have the money.”

Everyone, including Graham himself, knew he didn’t fit the mold of a traditional college president. He was youthful, casual (addressing the faculty in memos with “Dear Gang”), inexperienced in administration and he and his family even resided in a different state.

But all, especially Graham, believed his tenure as interim president would be temporary— maybe only a few months—until a full-time replacement was found. It soon appeared, however, that the only thing temporary would be the interim tag.


Even with Graham functioning essentially as an “absentee” president, no one could ignore the fact that Graham’s name brought prominence to Northwestern, drawing students to the school because of his association.

“We grew like weeds during his administration,’ said Clayton Pyche ’49, one of many students who were WWII veterans. “He had a major impact on the school—doubled the student body and drew foreign students from England, France, Russia—all over.”

“Billy Graham was always advertising for the school from day one,” said Brueske. “And wherever he went, he was automatically an advertisement for the school.”

Under Graham’s leadership, the school moved six blocks from First Baptist Church and Jackson Hall to its own newly constructed Memorial Hall campus in Loring Park, which quickly filled to capacity. And less than two months after Graham became interim president, The Northwestern Pilot received 1,000 new subscriptions (at $1.50/year). Graham also assumed Riley’s role as editor-in-chief of the publication, contributing several articles.

“Knowledge on Fire”

Early on, Graham observed that despite numerous Bible schools and seminaries, there was a shortage of trained evangelists. Now in the position to do something about it, he was thrilled about the opportunity to ignite among students a fire for sharing the Gospel.

He also knew Northwestern desperately needed a new catch phrase to communicate the school’s mission. The current “Blazing New Trails with the Old Faith” didn’t signal revival to Graham. So while home in Montreat, N.C., Graham pondered a new slogan for the Northwestern Schools

“I was involved with Billy in developing the phrase ‘Knowledge on Fire’ that became the slogan we adopted for the school,” said Beavan. They introduced the slogan, saying Northwestern would lead the way in training men and women for the evangelistic field. The community quickly embraced it with enthusiasm, which brought a renewed sense of mission to the school.

The January 1948 Pilot explained “Knowledge on Fire” as “the challenge and the goal. To combine these two—scholarship and zeal—is the program to which Billy Graham has committed himself and the Northwestern Schools.”

Soon Graham and the Northwestern family would commit themselves wholeheartedly to an entirely new, but complementary, venture outside of the classroom.

Northwestern Radio

The idea to launch a Northwestern radio station had begun with Loren Bridges and George Wilson several years before Billy Graham’s involvement, but it was during Graham’s presidency that the vision took to the air, literally.

At a Northwestern chapel service in early 1948, Graham issued a challenge to the student body to give a dollar a week to start a Northwestern radio station.

“The challenge really worked,” said Kyle Wilson, who remembers that particular chapel, “and the students gave over a thousand dollars a week. Students and staff [who raised $44,000] put Northwestern on the air through that weekly offering.”

On Monday afternoon, February 7, 1949, one year after the challenge was issued, KTIS signed on the air. President Graham was the first to speak, dedicating the station in prayer:
“This station stands as a monument to answered prayer and the sacrificial giving of the greatest gang of students, faculty and staff in all the world.”

Students not only helped provide the funding, they also helped in the construction and were actively involved in providing the content on the air. Brueske and several other students helped work on the tower in Golden Valley, doing grounds and shovel work.

“In the first years of KTIS, they used a lot of students in many different ways—music and speaking,” said Kyle Wilson. “Our quartet had a radio program twice a week. Several of us had separate solo programs. It really became a training ground in media for many students.

“We sang with our music groups on the program. I remember one of those songs we sang was ‘Send the Light’ and some of the songs Dr. Berntsen arranged for an ensemble. We went over at least once a week and made a live program.”

Brueske, longtime member and curator of history at First Baptist Church in Minneapolis, remembers when KTIS first began broadcasting the church’s sermons live from the pulpit.

“Billy Graham told Curt Akenson ’33 [pastor of First Baptist Church and Northwestern’s fourth president]: ‘We’re going to put a microphone in front of your face.’ Curt said, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about this.’ Billy said ‘Oh, you don’t need to. All you have to do is talk.'” Brueske laughs at the memory. “That was Pastor Akenson’s introduction to having the morning service on the air on KTIS.”

The Twin Cities’ response to KTIS was overwhelming. Gustavson was on the front line, corresponding with the station’s first listeners. “He got so many letters from people that I could hardly keep up with the correspondence to answer the people who were so thrilled to hear his voice on the radio.”


While the sphere of Northwestern’s ministry was expanding, Graham’s own evangelistic ministry was also on a fast track reaching a pivotal moment that would transform the future for Graham and Northwestern.

In September 1949, Graham and several others went to Los Angeles for what was to be a few weeks of revival meetings. But they found out soon there would be no timetable for preaching the Good News and the campaign continued to be extended, lasting two months.

“When he went down to Los Angeles, the people just came in droves,” said Pauline Wilson. “And he had to keep [the campaign] going because they just didn’t quit coming. I think that’s when he realized this is what he should be doing.”

Kyle Wilson explained, “The whole school was involved in the spirit of it. The newspapers and magazines had front page of this and the walls of Memorial Hall were plastered with Billy Graham publications and pictures. Students were totally into this thing.”

Wilson, who later returned to Northwestern and served for 23 years in student development and as campus pastor, added, “Hollywood people were saved at the L.A. crusade. We had some of those people come [to Northwestern] and give their testimonies in chapel—like Louis Zamperini, the [Olympic] track star, and Stuart Hamblen [legendary singer and radio personality]. They were in chapel as fruit of the crusade.”

It wasn’t until the L.A. campaign that Billy Graham became a household name—and international presence—thanks in part to media giant William Randolph Hearst. The stories of the handsome national-news-making evangelist with Hollywood looks but without the celebrity persona traveled fast.

“A lot of people were interested in it,” recalled Gustavson, who posted articles about the crusade on the walls outside of Graham’s office in Memorial Hall. “After all, Billy Graham was my boss and he was certainly making the news out in California.”

Even during the L.A. crusade, Graham attended to his responsibilities as Northwestern president. He spoke at a gathering of Northwestern alumni in the southern California region. And the week after the crusade, where more than 350,000 people attended, a Northwestern board meeting brought him back to Minneapolis for business.


After the L.A. campaign, Graham’s ministry exploded. In fact, many of his major ministries that continue to this day began during his years as Northwestern’s president. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was established in downtown Minneapolis in 1950. Minneapolis was chosen as headquarters due mainly to George Wilson, who left Northwestern to become vice president of BGEA.

Crusades drawing thousands to Jesus Christ quickly followed in Boston and Portland, Oregon in 1950. The same year, Graham also began the weekly radio broadcast “The Hour of Decision”, which aired to millions around the country. In 1951, BGEA launched the film ministry that later became World Wide Pictures.


As an extremely busy husband and father of three who was preaching to thousands and accepting personal meetings with world leaders, Graham increasingly felt the tension that divided his attention between evangelism and education.

Administrative obligations and fundraising demanded more time than he had to give. Gustavson dutifully informed her boss of invitations to countless Northwestern functions, which he frequently had to decline.

She urged him to attend events that required his presence. In the fall of 1948 Northwestern was preparing for the first Alumni Week without Dr. Riley and also Northwestern Day—the dedication of the new Memorial Hall. The milestone event was a major fundraising effort, and Graham and the entire school were encouraging all alumni to participate in various ways.

When Graham sent word to Gustavson that he might not be able to attend due to an important YFC commitment, she wrote a four-page letter to persuade him to change his plans, including correspondence from alumni around the country who would be attending and expecting to meet their alma mater’s new president. Gustavson concluded with a motherly chastisement, claiming that for the sake of his and Northwestern’s reputations, Graham could not afford to miss Alumni Week.

He replied, thanking her for the perspective and expressed that the board needed to find a permanent, full-time replacement. “I have always said that if my work at Northwestern Schools interfered with my evangelism then I would have to give up my work at the Schools because evangelism is first with me. I feel that it is as much a part of me as food and water.”

Graham was torn. He wavered with the decision whether to continue on as president. He had even tried to resign, but the board was split, and the majority did not accept his resignation. He not only remained in his post, but on June 7, 1949 the board decided to instate Graham as full president of the Northwestern Schools. It would take a few years to act on the fact that he, his wife Ruth and others already knew: that it is impossible to be effective as both a world evangelist and a local educational administrator.


Even with the “interim” title removed, Graham knew his days at Northwestern were numbered. A faction of faculty and board members began to oppose him and they worked toward their president’s departure. They disagreed with Graham on certain leadership and theological issues. But it was his inclusive approach to evangelism for accepting non-Protestant and some of the “more liberal” churches of the day at his crusades that especially upset some.

“The ultra-fundamentalists believed he had sold out [and] felt it was detrimental to Northwestern’s history and they tried all kinds of actions to get rid of him,” explained Beavan. “It was a very ungracious, unhappy, unkind situation. It was not pleasant.”

In reality, Northwestern became a crucible of sorts, in which Graham tested and clarified his true calling as an evangelist. He officially resigned as Northwestern’s president at a board meeting on February 25, 1952—the year the school would celebrate 50 years. The board accepted his resignation.

Although he experienced a sense of relief, Graham didn’t regret his time at Northwestern. Having lived through the tension of trying to fulfill competing commitments, he drew on the experience to pass up other distracting offers, however tempting, when pressured later in life. Hollywood courted him for motion pictures and Washington lobbied him for politics, but Graham remained committed to an even more influential path—counseling and advising those in such spheres.

He also continued to advise Northwestern leaders during the following years of financial and enrollment crises prior to its temporary closing. His friendship with Curtis Akenson lasted till Akenson’s death in 2002. Some tried to persuade Graham to return or to become involved in some official capacity, but to no avail. However, as a supporter he continued to advertise and fund raise for Northwestern. In 1959 he negotiated a gift of a quarter of a million dollars for a library, which is today the sole remnant on the former Loring Park campus (now part of Metro State University).

Kyle Wilson sums up well what some have called a “golden era” of Northwestern, occurring just prior to the school’s 50th year: “In American history, there have been waves of revival and this was one of the waves of revival, and we realized it was happening right in our midst and we were a part of it. And yet Billy Graham was much bigger because as we know now, he was God’s man for a larger era.”


Twenty-five years later saw Graham’s return to Northwestern, now on the new campus in Roseville. In the fall of 1977, Northwestern celebrated its 75th anniversary with the Diamond Jubilee, an outdoor ceremony featuring the college’s second president. Gospel singer George Beverly Shea, song leader Cliff Barrows and BGEA Executive Vice President George Wilson were also highlighted guests. Graham and his team were welcomed to the “New Northwestern” by President Bill Berntsen, Graham’s former colleague and music director who was also recruited by Riley.

During his address, Graham reflected on his time at Northwestern and on God’s provision during the school’s struggles in the 1960s:
There came a time when I did not have faith enough to believe there would be a Northwestern— that it could not continue, could not reopen. And many times the Lord said to me, ‘Oh ye of little faith.’ And God gave the faith to Bill Berntsen and his wife Beryl. And they believed and kept on believing. And some more people gathered around him who believed God. And together as a team, they’ve been used of God to bring this marvelous school, with its great history, to this campus that is so beautiful. And I personally am so proud and have done so little to contribute to it.

Graham’s humility, an admired mark of his character, cannot obscure the fact that his contributions to Northwestern are still felt today. Although his tenure at Northwestern was brief, Graham’s influence upon the college ripples to today’s students and every listener who tunes in to KTIS.

The 1948 Scroll (yearbook) paid an almost prophetic tribute to Graham:
Today under his leadership the Northwestern Schools have the greatest opportunity for usefulness in God’s purpose that has ever been accorded to any organization of its kind. …Future history will decide upon that which present events are now demonstrating, that Billy Graham can and is taking his place as the leader which God…elected him to be.

Even 60 years ago, Northwestern students had already begun to glimpse the influence Graham would have upon the school and on the world for Christ. At the Diamond Jubilee, Graham closed with his personal vision for Northwestern: Seventy-five years to look back to—glorious, thrilling, hard, challenging, sometimes desperate years. To God be the glory for what has happened. But today we don’t look back. We look forward to generations of students that are yet to come, should Christ tarry. And I want to recommit my support to you and to Northwestern today. I count it a privilege to be a part of your history and I want to be a part of your future.

Today, the Northwestern family agrees—it is both a privilege and an honor to know Billy Graham as a man who partnered with God to help shape the legacy of faith for individuals, families, cities, nations, and even a college.

Written by Jenny Collins ’05