CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Three former U.S. presidents joined together Thursday to praise evangelist Billy Graham and dedicate a new library in his honor, a $27 million complex that traces the preacher's rise from farm boy to America's pastor.
On a stage in view of a 40-foot glass cross that serves as the museum's front door, the frail preacher said he was embarrassed by the attention and there was "too much Billy Graham" in the exhibits.
"This building behind me is just a building," the 88-year-old Graham said in brief remarks, his once-powerful voice quieted by age. "It's an instrument, a tool for the Gospel. The primary thing is the Gospel of Christ."
Graham suffers from fluid on the brain, prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease, and is largely confined to his mountainside home in Montreat. He was driven by golf cart to the stage, where he used a walker and leaned on his son and successor, Franklin, to reach a seat.
A crowd of about 1,500 gathered for the outdoor event, in heat reaching near 90 degrees.
President George H.W. Bush sobbed as he spoke of how much the minister meant to him, calling Graham "a spiritual gift to all of us." Bush noted that the preacher had comforted four generations of the president's family; that includes President George W. Bush, who sent Graham a handwritten note last week.
Presidents Carter and Clinton recalled how Graham's insistence that his crusades be racially integrated helped bring blacks and whites together in the South.
But Clinton said Graham, who has met every U.S. president since Harry Truman and became a confidant to many of them, is just as impressive for his personal kindness.
"When he prays with you in the Oval Office or upstairs in the White House, you feel he's praying for you, not the president," Clinton said.
The event grew so emotional that Graham quipped, "I feel like I've been attending my own funeral." But he became emotional himself while paying tribute to his wife, Ruth, who is 86 and has degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck. She is bedridden at their home.
Graham is the most widely heard minister in the world, preaching in person to more than 210 million people in a career spanning six decades.
As chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the Rev. Franklin Graham has primary responsibility for preserving his father's legacy. He initiated the idea for a library, which opens Tuesday and will be free to the public.
The 40,000-square-foot complex was built on the wooded grounds of the association, and among its designers was the ITEC Entertainment Co., which has done work for Disney and other theme parks. The dairy farm where the preacher grew up is just a few miles from the site and the library reflects his roots.
The cavernous lobby is meant to resemble a barn with scattered bales of hay and milk cans. The sounds of a cackling chicken and neighing horse are piped in. The first Bible verse Graham's mother taught him, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son," is engraved onto a rafter.
To the right is a cow shed, where a display that has drawn the most curiosity stands. An animatronic black-and-white cow named Bessie says in a southern drawl that Graham has been "preaching the pure milk of God's word for 60 years." Bessie tells kids to "get moo-ving" to learn more about the preacher.
Critics have dubbed the display the "Golden Calf" and say it cheapens Billy Graham's legacy. But Franklin Graham said it is meant as an appeal to children.
The museum is more heartfelt tribute than scholarly review.
Graham's personal papers will be stored at the museum and will be managed by Wheaton College, the evangelical school in Illinois that has an archive of documents from his crusades. Billy and Ruth Graham met there as students.
There are photos of Graham with U.S. presidents and displays of gifts they gave him, including a golf club and a check that President Nixon passed along to the preacher as an offering. However, there is no mention of how Graham's close ties with Nixon had cast a shadow on the minister.
Old TV sets broadcast clips of the troubled times in America when Graham preached, including the Civil Rights era. Graham has been praised for integrating his crusades starting in 1953, but also criticized for his restrained support for the movement.
Designers have recreated the scene of Graham's 1949 Los Angeles tent revival, dubbed the "Canvas Cathedral," that lasted for weeks, drawing national attention to his ministry for the first time. A replica of the Berlin Wall is meant to underscore how remarkable it was that Graham won permission from communist governments to evangelize behind the Iron Curtain.
Billy Graham's children have been divided over where their parents should be buried -- at the library or at The Cove, a Bible training center near the Grahams' home. Franklin Graham believes his parents have decided the location, but "haven't made that public yet."
"I'll do whatever he tells me to," Franklin Graham said. "I don't care. He's going to be in heaven."
On the Net:
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association: http://www.billygraham.org