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'The spirit in your heart:' Preacher Billy Graham remembered in Canada

Last Updated Feb 23, 2018 at 5:00 pm EDT

FILE - In this May 31, 2007 file photo, Billy Graham speaks as his son Franklin Graham, right, listens during a dedication ceremony for the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.. Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died. Spokesman Mark DeMoss says Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. He was 99.(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

CALGARY – Fred Weiss was 22 years old when he joined the spellbound crowd listening to the Rev. Billy Graham at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium in 1981.

Graham, a celebrated evangelical preacher who was a confidant to U.S. presidents, died Wednesday at 99 at his North Carolina home.

“Having watched Billy Graham on television, I was very excited to be there and see him in person,” recalled Weiss, who is executive director of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada

“I was just struck by the consistency and simplicity of the gospel message, which I’d heard all my life, but he presented in such a concise manner that was always, to me, a hallmark of his preaching.”

The association said that throughout his career Graham preached to some 215 million people who attended one of 400 evangelical campaigns — known as crusades — simulcasts and rallies in more than 185 countries and territories.

The charismatic, square-jawed preacher led 13 crusades across Canada over more than four decades.

They drew big crowds, recalled Weiss.

“They knew exactly what he was going to say, but there was always a real excitement and expectation as he proclaimed the gospel message.”

The Billy Graham Library indicates the weeklong Calgary event Weiss attended drew 164,000 people.

“Your presence in such numbers is evidence of your great respect for Billy Graham and for his message. It is a message of hope which he has brought to people all over the world — a message challenging us to a personal and life-changing faith,” the library quotes then-premier Peter Lougheed as saying.

Graham’s first foray north of the border was a nearly month-long crusade in Toronto in 1955 that drew 356,000.

A plaque at Maple Leaf Gardens describes how Graham arrived at the hockey arena at the midway point of the campaign. He was met by a crowd so big that it overflowed onto the sidewalks. Loudspeakers were set up on the street corner to broadcast his sermon.

The plaque says that sermon touched on a common obsession for many during the Cold War: the prospect of nuclear destruction.

“The intellectual leaders have laughed. The philosophers have laughed. The scientists have laughed. But now the scientists are beginning to out-shout the preachers about the end of the world coming.”

Health problems interrupted another crusade in Toronto four decades later.

In 1995, Graham, then 76, was forced to cancel his appearance at the beginning of the five-day event after his colon began bleeding and he collapsed.

But in the final two days he was well enough to address faithful at what is now Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Some 5,000 people had to listen from outside.

He said at the time that his illness had caused him to reflect on his own mortality.

”I began to realize how quickly life can end and how short a time we have.”

Graham’s last Canadian crusade was in Ottawa in 1998. He addressed 20,000 followers — 2,000 of whom had to watch outside on a huge video screen.

”You haven’t come for Billy Graham,” he told the city’s packed hockey arena.

”I have no extra power to help or heal anyone. That’s the spirit in your heart.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Weiss was 12 when he saw Graham in 1981.