16: Steve Case

16: Steve Case

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 16 •
STEVE CASE

Chairman and CEO, Revolution LLC; co-founder, AOL; chairman, The Case Foundation

I first met Billy Graham in early 1998 when he spoke at a technology conference called TED. After the conference we talked, and I was quite taken not only by his message but also by his simplicity and humility, and the passion he brought to an audience made up mostly of technology executives focused on building companies.

About a month later I visited him at his home in North Carolina, and about a month after that I went to a crusade in Toronto and heard him speak there. We struck up a quick friendship and I’ve probably been with him about fifty times since then, including between six and eight crusades. Every two or three months I’ll fly down to North Carolina and spend an afternoon with him just to talk. On his eightieth birthday we invited him down to our house in Florida, and when my wife and I got married in the summer of 1998 he agreed to fly to Virginia to be the pastor at our wedding, which was sweet.

In a friendship that has developed over about fifteen years, we’ve had a lot of conversations about many different topics. If I had to pick one representative quality about him it would be humility. He is one of the best known and most respected people in the world and has met with and counseled thousands of people, including all the presidents over the past half century. He has been a trusted advisor to so many people and such a powerful voice globally. Yet despite all that, he carries himself with tremendous humility. There is a certain softness and sweetness about him that I’ve always admired.

Most people are a little in awe of the opportunity to spend time with him. I don’t think he fully appreciates the impact he has had because he is not focused on that. I’m deeply honored to be able to spend some time with him, but he can’t believe, given my busy schedule, that I can find the time to be with him! His humility is remarkable.

The touchstone of Billy Graham’s life has been simplicity, both in his message and his personal life. Because of that, it is hard not to have your faith deepened when you talk to him. It’s not just the sermons he preaches but the everyday life he leads. This is what draws people to him. I remember a dinner at the Clinton White House that my wife and I attended. Billy and Ruth were among the many high-powered people there, and I remember at the end of the evening, Bill and Hillary basically wanted to pull them aside and find a quiet space upstairs where they could just chat. That shows how people valued the wisdom he had, and his patient, nonjudgmental approach to life.

A few years later, in 2002 or 2003, President Bush hosted a family dinner for Billy at the White House on his birthday, and again you got to see the deep connection there. Everybody just feels better being in his presence and benefiting from his wisdom.

I noticed this when I first met him at the TED conference. I also appreciated the skill with which he delivered his talk. Most of the speakers at the conference talked about technology, but he took things to a different level. It was a mixed audience. Some people had strong faith, while others had none. Some were surprised he was there and wondered why he wanted to come, or why he had been invited. It was one of those situations where nobody quite knew what to expect. Probably he most of all because it was a different crowd for him. But his talk was mesmerizing, both for me and many others. It’s viewed as one of the legendary TED talks. It was very well crafted in that it was not the kind of message he would deliver at a crusade. He recognized that he had a more diverse and probably skeptical audience so he was not preachy. That’s not to say there wasn’t a strong message embedded in his talk, but I don’t think anyone would listen to it and refer to it as a sermon, although in fact it was. But it was a subtle approach. One of the themes was that technology is an enabler. It is a tool that can bring people together but it also carries the risk of separating people, and you need to be careful that you don’t get so focused on it that you lose sight of more important things. It was an important message to any group but certainly to that one.

In retrospect, it was not surprising that Billy Graham would want to address the TED conference. He has always tried to push the envelope in terms of new ways to reach more people with his message. He told me that when radio first came on the scene, he was on some radio stations in Hawaii (where I am from). He realized intuitively that this new-fangled thing called radio would allow him to reach new audiences, particularly people who would not likely show up in church or at a crusade. Similarly, he embraced television early and used it as a way to extend his reach, particularly to the unconverted, which has always been his desire.

He also saw the Internet and technology generally as an opportunity. When I was running AOL in 1995 we hosted an online national interactive chat with him. We take things like that for granted now but it was a new idea then. The fact that he accepted our invitation, in conjunction with TIME magazine, to be our special guest and interact with the audience, demonstrated a willingness on his part to embrace these technologies because they were new ways to reach people with a message.

There are a couple of remarkable things about Billy Graham in his later years. The first one that strikes me is that he is not a man who fears death at all. If he’s fearful of anything it is having to deal with the frustrations of getting older. The book he wrote, Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well, is instructive in that respect. The second thing is that even to this day he possesses an extraordinary memory. He has a much better memory than I do. The stories he can tell! If you just mention some topic he will say, oh, I remember when this happened, or that happened. It’s almost like a Forrest Gump movie about someone who has managed to be present at every pivotal moment in history for many decades. Billy Graham was a witness to history, and he has thousands of stories to tell because he has been with so many people in so many places over so many years. It’s been a remarkable life, and I feel privileged to know him.

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