Roy Exum: Me & Billy Graham

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

For several years in my life it seemed my bad arm and I spent more time at Mayo Clinic than we did in my own house. I hold the record for the most different infections in an elbow at the same time, and my medical charts never had my name on them, instead I was simply, “Mr. Complication.” One morning in particular I spent a horrible three hours in the “nerve conduction lab” with Dr. Frankenstein and we must have gone through a million volts of electricity trying to get my nerves to conduct.

My nerves stubbornly refused to conduct all morning, even when they shocked me with enough electricity to light a medium-sized city, and, minutes later, after being summoned to the operating room immediately, I was evermore a wreck.  The pain was incredible, throbbing like the biggest bass drum, and, brother, knowing they were holding an O.R. for me seemed like a real kick in the head. “Lord, what have I done to deserve this!” (Long answer: “Lots.”)

Mayo Clinic is actually several full city blocks of buildings and, because of the terrible ‘Minne-snow-da’ weather, there are these underground hallways connecting the huge campus. They are warm, well-lighted with beautiful art work on display and a bench ever so often for us ailing to rest. Again, I’m frazzled and, so help me, I look like last Tuesday’s toast. Boom! As I walked around a corner, so help me there stood Billy Graham.

I guess you’ve heard “America’s Preacher” finally met his Lord and Savior yesterday. He died at age 99 after a lifetime of glory. Man, Billy must have the world record for the most ‘well done my good and faithful servant.” He was on the “Most Admired Americans’ list” more times than not and, so help me, his kind and gentle heart gave him an aura like you wouldn’t believe. I knew he had Parkinson’s or something but as he walked with about 4 or 5 others down the hall that morning, he looked good to me.

Not the bashful type, I smiled and said, “Good morning, Dr. Graham” but I was too off my game for any conversation and stepped to the left to pass. But, no, he stopped. He shook my hand, noticed my heavily-bandaged arm, and asked, “What’s going on with you?”

Get the picture. I’m standing next to Billy Graham and I’m praying alright – that I won’t throw up or start crying. So I sloughed away my misery, using my favorite brush-off line, “I’m getting my arm tended to,” and then he asked me where I was from. When I said “Chattanooga” his eyes brightened and he told me he loved our city. “One time I held a Crusade there and they actually built a big building for us to use. I’ve never seen anything like that … “

“Yessir, I know … my grandmother had it built.” Now Billy, surprise in his eyes, guided me to a bench, sat down beside me and asked I tell him about it. “I’ve always wondered how that miracle ever happened.”

“Well, sir, my grandmother, Elizabeth McDonald, was the finest Christian woman who ever lived. Ever. She wanted you to come to Chattanooga for a week so badly she talked my grandfather into getting it built and I always was told your Crusade was one of the greatest things to ever happen in Chattanooga. As a matter of fact, it was extra special because it was the very first time our white community and black community in our city worshipped as one.”

“Did they call your grandfather ‘Mr. Roy?’” Billy was beaming. “Yessir, he’s the one. How it happened was a group of guys approached my grandfather about getting our big hospital back on its feet. He owned the newspaper and said he’d try. For the next 38 years he tried alright, as the Chairman of the Erlanger Board. He knew the city needed an indoor facility so to get Mamaw off his back, he worked out a favor for a favor, so to speak. He raised the money and the Warner Park Fieldhouse is still in use today.”

“I’ll always remember Mr. Roy. You know your family has been very supportive of me over the years …”

“Yessir, my whole family thinks mighty highly of you … but, Doctor Graham, would you tell me something? When I was growing up, Steve McQueen was my hero. I loved his movies … did he die holding your Bible?”

“I believe he did,” the famous preacher said and I glowed. I loved that. Then I explained some doctors were waiting on me and I needed to run along. Billy Graham, sitting with me at that bench, prayed for me and my family and the doctors who were going to fix my arm.

I cried at that, but I didn’t throw up.

* * *

Honor bright, Steve McQueen was my idol growing up. Back in the ‘70s he was the highest paid actor in the world but he was also something of a rebel growing up, a trait I deeply admire in any man. I never did any time in a California reform school like he did but in some ways we were a lot alike – I went to five high schools and my family never changed the address. Fast cars, loud motorcycles, pretty girls … we had a lot in common.

He was “The King of Cool” – oh, was he ever! -- and when he was married to Ali MacGraw, lord have mercy! For instance, he starred in “The Great Escape,” maybe the best POW film of all time, and he did his own stunt riding in the motorcycle scenes. Better yet, they dressed him up like a German officer and he actually chased himself, something that is decidedly cool.

“The Great Escape” hit the screen in 1963 and a couple of years later my brother and I bought a used Triumph TR-6 Trophy like McQueen had. Talk about a steed … Lookout or Signal … either one, a mile-a-minute on the climb guaranteed. Highway 27 to Sale Creek? “Shut up and hang on, precious.”

Oh, that bike was great for many wonderful near-brushes with death, and then when a dark green Mustang starred with McQueen in the movie “Bullet,” I had one of those, too, but it was a 289 instead of a 390 so it was pretty safe. Steve McQueen was all about speed and was such an inspiration in formative years. I was such a disciple that when I got my first speeding ticket for 100-plus, I had the thing framed!

Steve and Ali split ways after five years. Story was she had a miscarriage that was terribly emotional but McQueen was said to call her his all-time flame. I also know something about that. In 1980, after he was diagnosed with cancer caused by asbestos, he married Barbara Minty, who the sharp-eyed will remember from a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Her picture was so robust you could chew nails.

Barbara, in addition to drop-dead gorgeous, is a deeply-committed Christian and McQueen wanted to know all about it. At the last of his life, the cancer unstoppable, there was a knock on the McQueen door and Barbara had done her magic -- there stood Billy Graham.

A few day later, Billy rode with Steve to the airport, where the 50-year-old legend had a charter jet waiting to take him to an experimental clinic in Mexico. Before McQueen got out of the car, Billy handed Steve his Bible, certain verses carefully chosen. The next day, when it was said “The King of Cool” died in his sleep, he was holding Billy Graham’s Bible.

That’s way cool too.

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