In the beginning, the Rev. Billy Graham was a Wheaton College student who started his ministry while still in school and rapidly expanded it when he became pastor of a small church in Western Springs.
Before he was done, he would transform American religious life through his preaching and activism, reaching more than 200 million people through his appearances and millions more through his pioneering use of television and radio.
Unlike many traditional evangelists, he abandoned narrow fundamentalism to engage broader society, bringing a simple message based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He would become a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history.
Those who knew him and followed his career say he emerged in the middle of the last century as the right man at the right time to spread his message of forgiveness and eternal life here and abroad. He was a charismatic yet humble man who was adept at listening and, in turn, convincing others to at least consider his message.
And that message, they say, will not end with his death Wednesday morning at his home in North Carolina. Graham, who suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, was 99.
"Billy Graham," Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said, "proved faithful as a prophet with honor."
"The Wheaton College family worldwide grieves his death with members of the Graham family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association team, and rejoices with them that this beloved servant of the Lord has completed his journey and is at home with his Savior," he said.
Ryken said Graham was known for his transparency, simplicity and integrity.
"Billy Graham was willing to talk directly about the issues that were most on people's minds, so whether it was race, whether it was the danger of nuclear holocaust, whether it was the Cold War -- all kinds of things. He was willing to lean into the difficult issues of the day and speak to them directly," Ryken said. "Although he was willing to think about issues at some depth, his communication on things was really simple."
Graham remained a booster of Wheaton College long after he first set foot on the campus in September 1940 and met his wife, Ruth.
"Through the years he went out of the way to encourage each of Wheaton's presidents," Ryken said. "It was because of his love for Wheaton that the Billy Graham Center is one of the most prominent buildings on our campus."
"We have lost a true hero of the faith," Ed Stetzer, director of the center, said. "And although he is now receiving a resounding 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' we will miss him deeply. His impact and legacy cannot fully be comprehended here. His love for each and every individual he met, and his commitment to sharing Jesus with the world God so loves, stands as a model for all of us who seek to continue his legacy."
Those who knew him said Graham's success stemmed, in part, from the fact he dedicated himself to his ministry from very early in his career. That dedication to public speaking didn't go over well with everyone, though.
In 1943, at what is now Western Springs Baptist Church, not all the deacons were thrilled with his approach, Rev. Dean Monkemeier, now the church's senior pastor, said.
"The result was he was sometimes not here when the deacon board thought he should be," he said. "They were wanting a full-time pastor."
But Graham never wavered from his Biblical teachings, Monkemeier said, and always demonstrated his integrity and ability to communicate.
"There was still a humility that kept him grounded," Monkemeier said.
Monkemeier said Graham started "Songs in the Night" while at the church. The live radio program was broadcast on Sunday nights from the church's sanctuary and continued for roughly 20 years. It's still broadcast, but now from a church in Chicago.
"He brought a pretty simple message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Monkemeier said. "He brought a warm, personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
Graham visited Wheaton several times after he graduated. His last trip was in 1994 for the rededication of the center that bears his name.
Ryken, who was just starting high school, was among those in attendance.
"I was there that day, sitting on a picnic blanket and listening to Dr. Graham preach the gospel he loved to proclaim -- the good news of forgiveness for sin and the free gift of eternal life through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ," Ryken said. "Like countless others who heard Billy Graham preach, I recommitted my life to Christ."
In the years since, Wheaton renamed the Billy Graham Center, which opened in 1980, as the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism to more clearly define its purpose as a place to train Christians for Christ-centered evangelism.
Ryken spoke with Graham shortly after becoming president of the college in 2010 and said Graham spoke freely and openly about his hope to be with Jesus soon.
Graham's influence spread across the globe, but Wheaton Mayor Michael Gresk said he also had a huge influence here.
"The name of the city and the name of Dr. Graham are forever tied together," Gresk said. "It's just a wonderful association that the college and the city has with the Billy Graham legacy and the impact that he's had on the world."
Northern Seminary President Bill Shiell said Graham touched the lives of millions because he preached the gospel in a clear, concise and understandable way.
"Dr. Graham took the message of Jesus Christ and simplified that message for the average listener," Shiell said. "He gave them a step-by-step way to understand how to change one's life for the Lord."
Graham began his religious work as a student through both on-campus ministries and other outreaches. He was a member of the Foreign Missions Fellowship group and served as president of the Christian Council. His senior year he also served as pastor of a local church, United Gospel Tabernacle.
He served his alma mater as a trustee from 1963 to 1990 and received an honorary doctorate from the college in 1956.
"This campus has tried to keep a lively connection with Billy Graham," Ryken said. "On occasion we've had students sign birthday cards for Billy Graham. On occasion, he would ask me to send him a note giving him an update on what was happening at Wheaton College."
Ryken said he visited with Graham several years ago.
"All of his thoughts and comments about the past were about Wheaton College and particularly about his relationship with (his wife) Ruth. All of his thoughts about the future were about heaven and about Jesus."
"One of the things that's most remarkable about Billy Graham is in a way his ordinariness. He really was the same person in public that he also was in private ... He was really the same person in personal conversation that you expect in terms of his spiritual fervor, in terms of his kindness, in terms of his interest in you and not in himself."
The college plans to announce details about a service for students to coincide with Graham's funeral in North Carolina.
"Certainly as we think about memorializing who he was over the next week on our campus, we will really give students an opportunity to hear his messages," said the Rev. Tim Blackmon, the school's chaplain.
• Daily Herald staff writers Doug Graham and Bob Smith contributed to this report.