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Rev. Billy Graham Found Evangelical Voice in Temple Terrace, Tampa

Billy Graham Library
A historical marker in downtown Tampa marks where Billy Graham started trying to help people on North Franklin Street.

In the late 1930s, 20-year-old Billy Graham dropped to his knees on the dewy fringe of the 18th green of what is now the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club.

“The moonlight, the moss, the breeze, the green golf course – all the surroundings stayed the same,” Graham said in his autobiography. “No sign in the heavens. No voice from above. But in my spirit I knew I had been called to the ministry. And I knew my answer was yes.”

Graham’s epiphany marked the beginning of his illustrious career as a preacher, a career that will leave a legacy long after his passing in Montreat, North Carolina Wednesday.

Graham was 99.

“Billy Graham’s formative years were spent in Tampa, particularly in the city of Temple Terrace,” Rodney Kite-Powell, the curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center said. “He was pondering about going into the church and being a preacher for his career and he would practice. He was very, very shy, and so he would practice while he was all alone in the swamps along the Hillsborough River.”

“He would come downtown and he would try to help save the people who were spending their lives drinking and living a bad life on North Franklin Street,” Kite-Powell said. “The first people he tried to help were those that were, in his eyes, most in need here in downtown Tampa.”

He founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950 and garnered a following through a radio program, TV specials, newspaper columns and “Decision” magazine, the official publication of the association.

Credit Billy Graham Library
Billy Graham held a number of Crusades, evangelical campaigns, in Tampa. His 1998 appearances were the first non-football events held at Raymond James Stadium.

Graham was able to use his leadership to influence American politics.

He was a confidant to 12 U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan in 1983. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton attended a library and museum dedication to Graham in 2007.

Graham started his career preaching to birds, alligators and cypress stumps on a small island in the Hillsborough River. He finished his career preaching to cities, social leaders and presidents.

“I think to go from speaking in the middle of the swamp to alligators and birds to having the ear of the most powerful people on Earth, it just takes somebody with incredible drive, incredible magnetism and incredible spirit,” Kite-Powell said. “Something about his oratory skills and his interpersonal skills that just made people want to listen to him.”

It all started on the 18th green at Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club.  

Sam Newlon interning as a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news reporter for spring 2018.
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