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Billy Graham: More Than Just A Pastor To Presidents

Billy Graham: More Than Just A Pastor To Presidents

If you believe in heaven - and I do - then you must believe Billy Graham arrived there yesterday. 

And no one would be happier to welcome him home than my Aunt Agnes, who died on Christmas Day in 1975 at the age of 62.

Ever since I learned of Billy Graham’s death, it’s Agnes who’s been on my mind. Like millions of people around the world, my aunt was inspired by Graham and his Christian crusades. 

But she was different from many of his other followers.

Agnes was my dad’s older sister. “Mentally retarded” was the more polite term used to describe her. But there were other, uglier labels hurled her way, especially when she was a kid.

 Agnes, in the front row, wearing the dark dress. That's me in the tutu.

Agnes, in the front row, wearing the dark dress. That's me in the tutu.

Moron. Idiot. Freak.

Agnes was brain damaged. Her skull was crushed by forceps during a difficult home birth. As a result, she had poor vision, bad balance and difficulty learning. If she’d been born half a century later she would have been educated and found work. Maybe she would have married.

But for a mentally impaired girl born in 1913, the outlook was grim. 

She was booted out of public school after second grade, which is what they did in the early part of the 20th century to kids who were slow.

After that, my grandparents reluctantly agreed to send her to a state-run institution: a school for “feeble-minded children.” So a car came one day and whisked the weeping 8-year-old child away from her parents. After a month, my grandmother found a way to visit the school, which was about 50 miles away.

She found her little girl scrubbing floors in the place that was supposed to be teaching her to read and write. 

My aunt came home. She stayed in the protective cocoon of family for the rest of her days.

She was often frustrated by her disabilities and embarrassed by her limitations.

But Agnes found one source of joy in her life: The fiery preacher from North Carolina, Billy Graham.

My aunt never called him that, though. To Agnes, the evangelist was always reverentially referred to as, “The Reverend Doctor Billy Graham.”

She watched him on TV, listened to him on the radio and had albums of Graham’s sermons, which she played endlessly on a little record player in her room.

And every month, out of the pittance that came her way from Social Security, she sent a donation to Billy Graham’s ministry.

I remember watching my grandmother address and stamp the envelope for her. Agnes would then carefully place a dollar or two inside and walk a few blocks to drop it in a mailbox.

She saved every single message of thanks, too, as if they were warm personal notes from The Reverend Doctor Billy Graham himself.

 Aunt Agnes in about 1955.

Aunt Agnes in about 1955.

As the tributes to Billy Graham poured in yesterday, most folks remembered him as the pastor to American presidents.

 At Niagara Falls. Agnes, in the white dress. 

At Niagara Falls. Agnes, in the white dress. 

Not me. I’ll always think of him as the preacher who gave hope to a disabled woman in a small New Jersey town.

Billy Graham taught my Aunt Agnes that God loved her and that someday she’d go to heaven where she’d be like everyone else.

She believed that. And I do too.

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