Editor's Note: In 2017, the Palatka Daily News did an extensive feature about Billy Graham and his ties to Putnam County. The story is below.
Looking across the shoreline at Lake Swan in Melrose, it’s not hard to imagine a young, tall and thin preacher boy lining up the neighborhood kids nearby to practice his sermons on them in an open-air barn with a tin roof and benches.
But that’s how Charleyene Reed Brantley of Grandin remembers Billy Graham, who she met when she was about 12 or 13 at the Melrose camp her uncle, the Rev. John Minder, founded.
“He was probably 18 or 19,” said Brantley, smiling, of the man that has come to be known as America’s Preacher. “He would preach to us, and we would ‘amen’ him. Then we would swim in the lake and jump off his shoulders.”
Brantley, 91, said her family left Akron, Ohio, on Jan. 1, 1938, to move to the Lake Swan camp in Melrose after her father lost his job at Goodyear.
That’s where she met the young Billy Graham.
“My Uncle John was a dean at Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace and Bible doctor when Billy was a student there,” she said. “He was also Billy’s professor and mentor.”
Graham’s connection to Putnam County began while he was a student at Florida Bible Institute at Temple Terrace near Tampa.
While there, Graham met Minder, his college dean, who was impressed enough by the 18-year-old to tell his friend, the Rev. Cecil Underwood of Palatka, “You need to meet this gentleman.”
From there, Minder invited young Graham on an Easter weekend trip in 1937 that would take him north of Tampa to Palatka, where he wound up preaching his first sermon.
It was at Bostwick Baptist Church.
According to excerpts from Graham’s autobiography, “Just As I Am,” he said it was a cold Saturday when he and Minder got together in nearby Palatka with Minder’s friend, Cecil Underwood, a lay preacher who was pastoring at Peniel Baptist Church.
“Out of the blue, Mr. Underwood asked Minder if he would mind preaching for him the following evening at a small Baptist church in Bostwick, for which Mr. Underwood had taken responsibility.
“No,” he answered, “Billy is going to preach.”
Tommy Underwood smiles when he recalls what he was told of how Graham’s first sermon went.
“They tell me he had four borrowed sermons written, and when Dr. Minder told him he was going to preach that Sunday, he said, ‘I’m not prepared,’” Underwood said. “Dr. Minder said, ‘You have some sermons prepared. You go ahead and preach and if you give out, I will take over for you.”’
In his autobiography, Graham said he was so frightened he spent the night studying and praying, instead of sleeping, followed by the same most of the next day, practicing aloud.
“When the moment came to walk to the pulpit in the tiny Bostwick Baptist Church, my knees shook and perspiration glistened on my hands,” he said in the book. “I launched into sermon number one. It seemed to be over almost as soon as I got started, so I added number two. And number three. And eventually number four. Then I sat down.
“Eight minutes – that was all it took to preach all four of my sermons.”
At the end of the service, Underwood said, he was told one of the men of the church came up to young Graham and said, “Boy you better go back to school and get a lot more education because you’re not gonna make it.”
THE CALL TO PREACH
In the fall of 1934, at age 16, Graham made a personal commitment to Christ during a series of revival meetings in Charlotte, N.C., led by traveling evangelist Mordecai Ham.
“When Billy first started preaching, Dr. Minder had a good talk to him a couple of times,” Underwood said. “Billy just didn’t feel like this was his expertise. After several talks, Billy dedicated his life strictly to God and the ministry.”
In 1937, while a student at the Florida college, Graham said he accepted the call to preach on the 18th green of the Temple Terrace Golf and Country Club, which is in front of today’s Sutton Hall at Florida College in Temple Terrace.
COMING TO PALATKA
Underwood said he recalls his father making many weekend road trips in the late 1930s to the Florida Bible Institute, where he would pick up student song leaders, piano players and preachers, including Graham, in the bed of his old pickup truck and drive them two-and-a-half hours to Putnam County.
The aspiring preachers and other students would often be treated to fried chicken and mashed potatoes, before finding a spot to sleep on the floor at Underwood’s small home on Gillis Street in Palatka. On Sunday mornings, they would then be assigned to area churches. Sunday afternoon, Underwood would take them back to school.
Underwood said he has heard stories from an early age of Billy Graham and his revival team, and remembers being about 6 when they were visiting the Underwood home in Palatka.
“Mama said, ‘Tommy, go out and tell Billy and the men to come in because lunch is ready,’” Underwood said. “Mama could really cook. Sometimes she would have a great, big old roast ready — other times, chicken. Billy Graham could sure devour fried chicken.”
Underwood said he remembers calling the young preacher “Mr. Graham” and he stopped him in his tracks.
“He said, ‘Stop right there. To you and the rest of your life, my name is Billy, and don’t you forget it,’” he said. “Anytime I was around him at any of his crusades, I would call him Billy. I would see these men give me the drop-dead looks thinking I didn’t respect him, but we were close friends.”
Tommy Underwood said it was his father who encouraged Graham to get baptized in a Southern Baptist Church.
“Daddy talked to him about that and told him, ‘If you want to start preaching in Baptist churches, you need to be of the Baptist faith,’” he said.
Underwood baptized Graham Dec. 4, 1938, at Silver Lake in Palatka. The location is on Wilkinson Lane off West Peniel Road, where at one time, there were bathhouses on the property owned by a deacon at Peniel Baptist. It was also the location used by the church to baptize new converts and is across the lake from Hudson Recreation Club.
Graham was later ordained by Underwood and a half-dozen local Southern Baptist preachers Jan. 14, 1939, at Peniel Baptist Church.
DESTINED TO BECOME KNOWN WORLDWIDE
According to Underwood, he was probably around 12 when he realized Graham was destined to become a worldwide evangelist.
“I knew that God was using him all over the world, so that really meant something to me,” he said.
That realization became more evident to Underwood when he overheard a call his daddy got at 2 a.m. one morning from Graham, who was in England at the time.
“The telephone in our house was on the wall outside my bedroom, and Daddy and Billy talked for probably two hours on the phone,” he said. “I was a light sleeper and any time the phone rang, I was wide awake.”
The call wasn’t anything new for the Rev. Underwood.
“Billy would call Daddy numerous times in our lifetime,” Tommy Underwood said. “Daddy was his mentor and when Billy had a question of any kind about the Bible, they would discuss it on the telephone.”
Underwood remembers his father receiving a new print copy of the Bible one year from Graham, who was in a crusade in England.
“Daddy called Billy or wrote him and told him his concerns, and there were things left out of the print, including the blood of Jesus,” he said. “Billy wrote him back and said, ‘I will never use that again. I did not realize that.’”
Underwood’s favorite memory of Graham was comparing 5-foot-11-inch height at 13 to Graham’s 6-foot 4-inch stature.
“He always looked so big, so tall,” he said. “He was still way above me, but still a bean pole. ”
STAYING IN TOUCH
Graham graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1943 with a degree in anthropology. He married fellow student Ruth McCue Bell, daughter of a missionary surgeon, who spent the first 17 years of her life in China. The couple married Aug. 13, 1943, with Graham’s longtime Florida mentor, Minder, performing the ceremony in Montreat, N.C. From 1943 to 1944, Graham briefly served as a pastor of First Baptist Church in Western Springs, Ill.
Underwood said even after Graham left for Wheaton College, he continued to stay in touch with his father by phone.
“After he got out of school and started putting together an evangelistic team, they would come to the house and talk with Daddy,” he said. “The little old house on Gillis Street was small. They would sleep on the couch, on chairs or on the floor. When he held a service, he would always bring his own singing team.”
PREACHING IN PUTNAM COUNTY
During Graham’s time in Putnam County, he was known to preach at several other area churches, including East Palatka Baptist, where it was said he preached his first revival service; Welaka Baptist; and what was then Pomona Baptist Church. The church name was later changed to the Pomona Park Baptist Church.
Irene Hundley, 85, remembers meeting the young Graham at the Pomona Church, for which her grandparents, William and Secrenia Mew, donated the land and helped build in 1926.
“I thought that was the most beautiful man,” said Hundley, who was just a child at the time. “He was a good looking man and I saw that as a child.”
Hundley said Graham would spend time at her grandparents’ home in Pomona Park when preaching revival services at the church. Her grandparents were also invited and attended his wedding in North Carolina.
According to Hundley, Graham laughed when she was sitting on his knee and asked him if he would wait and marry her.
“I’m sure he was embarrassed,” she said. “I just had my little girl eyes on him.”
Hundley’s cousin, Phil Alvers, 85, of San Mateo, remembers Graham, too.
“When he preached that revival in 1938, I was 7-years-old,” he said. “I remember his sermons so well. He was a genius at helping people come to know the Lord Jesus Christ. He was a great revivalist. We could tell he was going to be a great evangelist.”
Alvers also remembers his mother twice cooking dinner for the young Graham, who was 19 at the time he preached in Pomona Park.
“He loved the fried chicken so much,” he said. “I remember him kidding around with me. I was very bashful at the time, a country boy you know, but we hit it off nicely for the week he was there. All the girls fell in love with him.”
PART OF THE REVIVAL TEAM
Hundley also remembers Irene McManus of Palatka coming to play the piano at the church with the Billy Graham team during revival services.
“I remember him singing at my grandma’s house, and Irene would play the organ,” she said.
McManus met Graham at Peniel Baptist Church, where she was a lifelong member. She played the piano at Graham’s ordination at Peniel, and he later convinced her to attend Florida Bible Institute in Tampa, where he was a student. He graduated in 1940 from the college with a degree in theology.
Tommy Underwood said the last time he spoke to Graham was when he and his wife, Bonnie, attended one of his crusades in Clearwater. It was the early-1960s.
“We got there a few minutes early and I saw Billy sitting out in the football stadium on the platform,” he said. “He looked up and said, ‘You’re Tommy Underwood. I would recognize you anywhere in the world.’”
Graham invited the Grandin couple to sit on the platform with him during the service.
Graham has been known to revisit Putnam County over the years, but unannounced to avoid the fanfare.
He was the guest speaker Sept. 15, 1972, along with then Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, during the dedication of the new dining room/chapel complex named in honor of Minder at Lake Swan Bible Conference in Melrose, according to information in the book, “John Minder – A Man Sent From God,” written by Minder’s wife, Lorene.
According to Carolyn Williams, Bostwick Baptist Church secretary, she was told while passing through after a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Graham stopped at the church, wanting to see the old building.
“It was somewhere in the mid- to late-1990s or early-2000,” she said. “He showed up out of nowhere and a church member just happened to be there.”
On April 9, 2011, representatives from the Billy Graham Association came to the Bostwick church to dedicate a memorial marker. Representatives were also on hand from the Florida Baptist Historical Society. The marker is in front of the old church building, which is behind the new church sanctuary.
The marker reads in part the following:
“William (Billy) Franklin Graham preached his first sermon on Easter Sunday night, March 28, 1937, at the Bostwick Baptist Church near Palatka, Florida. He was saved in a Mordecai Ham crusade when he was 16 years of age. He preached his first sermon at Bostwick Baptist Church while a student at Florida Bible Institute in Temple Terrace.
“Graham became widely known as an evangelist after the Los Angeles evangelistic campaign in 1949 and formed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950.
“Billy Graham preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to more people around the world than any other preacher who has ever lived. The lifetime audience of hearers, including radio and television has exceeded two billion people.”
According to visitflorida.com, Graham, coming from another visit to the Mayo clinic in Jacksonville, was said to have sent an assistant to Angel’s Diner in Palatka to pick up hamburgers.
He was also greeted by about two-dozen people July 29, 2001, when he came to Palatka for a private dedication and viewing of The Billy Graham Mural.
Locals met with Graham in City Barber Shop, across from the mural, which depicts Graham’s baptism in Silver Lake. The mural is located on the side of a building on Fourth Street off St. Johns Avenue in downtown Palatka.
Brantley can still remember her mother, Ruth Reed, preparing many cooked meals for Graham when he would call her Uncle John and tell him he was coming through the area.
“When my mother celebrated her 80th birthday, he sent a big, long telegram,” Brantley said. “When she died in 2000, he sent flowers to her funeral.
Tommy Underwood and his wife made a trip in 2015 to Charlotte, N.C., to the Billy Graham Library and Museum, where they donated copies of photographs, newspaper clippings and a color print of the Billy Graham Mural in Palatka.
MAKING A POINT
Graham often quoted Bible scriptures at his crusades and speaking engagements, including in January 2000 when honored at a luncheon by leaders of Charlotte, N.C., according to biblebaptistcares.com.
In part, he told about getting a new suit for the occasion that would also be what he would be buried in.
“But when you hear I’m dead, I don’t want you to immediately remember the suit I’m wearing. I want you to remember this: I not only know who I am … I also know where I’m going.
“Do you know where you are going when you die?” Graham asked those present at the luncheon. “1 John 5:13 says, ‘These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may KNOW that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.’”
When Underwood was asked who could have known that a man who preached to millions around the globe during his lifetime could have gotten his start in the ministry in a small, quaint little town called Palatka, he smiled.
“You know, only God can have control over something like that,” he said.