One of the world’s most well-known religious leaders died Wednesday at the age of 99. Calling Billy Graham a “preacher” hardly does his stature justice, the man who took his message to nearly 200 countries around the world and to more than 200 million people. He prayed with presidents and remained a constant force in spiritual matters from the days of old-time revivals to the days of radio, TV, and 21st-century media. A long and storied career and a life well lived, I suppose.
The thing is, I never listened to Billy Graham. I was too young or too modern or simply too unchurched to be part of his flock. My minister growing up? He was on TV too, and in fact this week marked 50 years since Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood first aired on public television. (Earlier incarnations of the show even preceded that.)
I’m not going to add anything to the Mr. Rogers mystique that hasn’t been glowingly referenced elsewhere. (And by the way, Fred Rogers really was an ordained minister.) He was my spiritual leader when I was a kid, as he was for many. When he died in 2003 I felt as though a part of me died as well. My childhood died that day. I was 20, about to finish college, and here was the great symbol of my childhood vanishing. None of my own grandparents had yet died (but for a grandfather who had died 16 years before and of whom I didn’t remember much), and I really felt as though Mr. Rogers was my first grandparent to go. There was a certain loss of innocence that February day in 2003. Hard to believe that this Tuesday it will have been 15 years.
To Fred Rogers and Billy Graham… rest in peace.