Billy Graham celebrates 99th birthday
Author: KJ Hiramoto
Published: 5:35 AM EST November 7, 2017
Updated: 6:40 AM EST November 7, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Back in 2013, world-famous evangelist and Montreat resident Billy Graham told a group of people that he might just live to be 100.

It's looking more like that vision might just come true.

Graham, who struggles with many of the maladies of old age but overall is in stable health, is giving Methuselah a run for his money. Graham turns 99 Tuesday.

"As a family, we are just so very grateful that he is still with us," Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said in a statement. "His mind is good but he’s quieter these days. He can’t see or hear well, but his health is stable."

The Billy Graham Library in Charlotte invited guests to celebrate the evangelist's birthday with various events and festivities. Visitors at the Billy Graham Library had a chance to enjoy cake, sign a birthday banner with prayers, memories and well wishes for Rev. Graham.

The family will spend time with Billy Graham on his birthday — and bring his favorite cake, lemon cake with lard icing. Yep, lard icing apparently is one of Rev. Graham's secrets to longevity.

"He loves those cakes — but it has to have the lard icing," Franklin Graham said.

They also plan a special celebration at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, the city where Graham was born. Nov. 7 is also the 10th anniversary of the opening of the library, which tells Graham's life story and serves as a repository of Billy Graham memorabilia and displays.

"We’ll have birthday cake for everyone who comes by," Franklin Graham said.

The elder Graham has endured respiratory problems and other health issues in recent years, but he still lives in his home in Montreat, a small community near Black Mountain. Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died in 2007, raised their five children in Montreat.

Asheville resident Glenn W. Wilcox, Sr., founder of Wilcox World Travel and a close friend of Billy Graham's, said he last saw Graham a few months ago at Graham's home.

"I've been getting reports on him, and all in all, he's doing as well as any 99-year-old person can do," said Wilcox, 85. "God’s protecting him. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future."

Wilcox said he's constantly amazed at how God has used Billy Graham and continues to use the organization he founded to bring people to Jesus Christ. Wilcox has known Billy Graham for more than a half-century, and for decades his travel company handled Graham's travel arrangements.

Wilcox is also a devout Christian, and the two men became fast friends.

"One of the things I treasure more than anything else is my personal friendship with him for 52 years," Wilcox said. "That's a friendship I could never replace."

Billy Graham shot to fame in the late 1940s and 1950s, holding huge crowds spellbound with his passionate preaching at crusades throughout the world. While he had movie star good looks and charisma to spare, Graham kept the focus on bringing people to Jesus Christ.

RELATED: Billy Graham Biography

RELATED: As he turns 99, Billy Graham remains in 'stable' health, despite challenges of old age

'World's best known' evangelist

Billy Graham first gained prominence after his Los Angeles crusade in 1949. In the crusade, he led hundreds of thousands of individuals to make personal decisions to live for Christ, which is the main thrust of his ministry.

Graham later founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 1950. The BGEA "exists to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all we can by every effective means available to us and to equip the church and others to do the same," according to its mission statement.

In 1957, Graham led a New York City crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957 that ran nightly for 16 weeks. On what was supposed to be the final night of the crusade, 100,000 people packed Yankee Stadium to hear Graham speak. At the time, it was the largest crowd in the stadium's history, according to BGEA's website.

Graham's popularity led to his NYC crusade being extended to September 1, instead of the July 20 date at Yankee Stadium. BGEA estimates nearly 2.4 million people attended the meetings.

Graham's fame and influence has led the evangelist to be included in Gallup's annual "10 most admired men in the world" list for 60 years. He's been among the top-10 every year since 1962, according to BGEA's website.

Billy Graham's journey began in Charlotte

Billy Graham has dined and prayed with world leaders and inspired folks from all walks of life -- and it all began in Charlotte.

William Franklin Graham Jr. started off simply. He was born four days before the end of WWI on Nov. 7, 1918, to William Franklin and Morrow Coffey Graham. They raised him on a dairy farm in Charlotte, that at the time was far out in the country. That location is known today as Park and East Woodlawn Roads. Graham says he spent a great deal of time in the haylofts reading books.

The population of the big city was around 30,000 in 1918.

"Charlotte was always, to me, the great metropolitan city of the world," Graham has said of the city. "The South, to me, was a place where people were gracious. It was a very mild and quiet type of life compared to today."

Graham's parents were religious and Billy followed suit, becoming a regular churchgoer. He admitted, however, he only paid lip service to religion until one night in high school when he heard well known evangelist Mordecai Ham speak in Charlotte in 1934.

"I was fascinated. Here was a man that stood up with an open bible and began to explain, scripture by scripture. I never heard such preaching. And I went back night after night. And one night I went forward. It was just a simple declaration that I wanted Christ in my heart," Graham said.

Graham went on to the Florida Bible Institute and became ordained in 1939. He then headed to Wheaton College in Illinois. It was there he met Ruth Bell, daughter of a missionary doctor. The two wed in 1943. The 50-year marriage produced three daughters, two sons, 19 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

In the mid '40s, Graham helped start the Youth for Christ movement. He also joined forces with two friends, George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows. The three would grow old together.

His legacy bloomed after WWII. And the rest is history.

BGEA's work in the community

While the 99-year-old now lives a quiet life in Buncombe County, remaining members of the BGEA continue to serve communities around the world.

Over 30 years after Billy Graham led a seven-city tour in Romania, Will Graham, his grandson and Vice President of BGEA, returned late October to share the elder Graham's Gospel in the city of Cluj-Napoca. Will is the third generation in the family to preach the Gospel in Romania, as his famous grandfather toured the country in 1985 and his father, Franklin, visited in July 2008.

Following Sunday's deadly shooting at First Baptist Church, BGEA's Rapid Response Team deployed its chaplains to Sutherland Springs, Texas, to provide ministry and emotional care.

"The evil at work in this tragedy is incomprehensible,” said Jack Munday, international director of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team in a statement. “It’s impossible to understand what could drive a young man to do something so inhumanly cruel. While we don’t have all the answers, we will do everything we can to comfort the grieving and give peace to those in despair as we bring the hope of Jesus.”

The chaplains from the Billy Graham Response Team has provided relief for other tragic events such as last week's attack in New York City, the Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 people and in Charlotte, following the violent Keith Scott protests. According to the BGEA's website, the rapid response team has been deployed to over 270 disaster sites since it was first developed in 2001.

RELATED: Chaplains: There is trauma and suffering