On May 15, 1957, Billy Graham preached to a packed crowd at Madison Square Garden, N.Y. — the first day of what would be a record-breaking 16-week run there, despite some predictions that the Crusade would fail in the secular city.
According to a newspaper account, the largest requested block of reserved seating came from the late Bob Neff Sr., the director of Lancaster Youth for Christ in Pennsylvania. He arranged for a train to take youth and parents to hear the young evangelist, and when that train filled up, he made arrangements for a second. That one also filled to capacity, for a total of more than 2,100 travelers. Round-trip fare was a discounted $9.50 for adults.
Possibly the youngest passenger was Neff’s son, 7-year-old Bob Neff Jr.
“I remember being on the train and going from car to car,” Neff said. There was a food car in the middle of the train, “so I spent some time there, too.”
The Lancaster group arrived at Penn Station in New York on June 1, then took a subway to Madison Square Garden. That night, every seat was full and 700 were left standing to hear Graham preach.
Neff remembers the crowds, and although he doesn’t recall the message that night, he has seen Graham several times since then.
“He always presents the Gospel clear and plain,” he said. “I’m sure it was that way that night also.”
Graham himself joined Youth for Christ as a rising evangelist after graduating from college in 1943. By the New York Crusade in 1957, more than 2.4 million people came to hear him preach with more than 61,000 inquiring about Christ. He preached at Yankee Stadium, at Times Square and outdoors during lunch hour on Wall Street. The New York Crusade also marked the beginning of his telecast ministry. Graham competed with Perry Como on NBC and Jackie Gleason on CBS.
Because so many people wanted to witness Graham’s powerful preaching in person, Bob Neff Sr. quickly ran out of room on the trains he organized and had to turn some people away. But the idea of melding faith and travel planted an idea in his head.
Following his time with Youth for Christ, Bob Neff Sr. took a job at WDAC-FM, a local Christian radio station. He escorted the station’s tours to Bibletown in Boca Raton, Florida, where travelers enjoyed Christian fellowship, teaching and music. The station stopped the tours in 1971, but Neff continued organizing trips around New England, the Wisconsin Dells and Holland, Mich., during tulip season. Every tour included Christian fellowship.
In 1977, Bob and his second wife, Jean, started Bob Neff Tours. (Neff’s first wife died shortly before the trip to Madison Square Garden.) They ran the business out of their home but soon ran out of room.
As Bob Neff Jr. remembers, they sat “right there at the kitchen table and started planning toward putting an addition on the house.”
By 1989, the business moved into an office building and Bob Neff Jr. took over. Today, more than 20 people serve on staff and coordinate tours across the United States, Canada and worldwide. Travelers go everywhere from Nova Scotia, Canada, to the Smoky Mountains to Switzerland, Austria and Germany. But one place the Neffs always speak highly of is right here in Charlotte, N.C.
“The Billy Graham Library is one of the big destinations,” Neff said. Most passengers are of retirement age, and many have been to Graham’s Crusades.
Neff’s wife, Cindy, grew up watching Graham on TV. Sometimes when she shares her faith, she said, she gets tongue tied. But not Graham.
“I was always so impressed, No. 1, with his passion,” she said. “Always earnest, intense, passionate about what he was saying. And No. 2, I was always so impressed with how simply he said it.”
Neff doesn’t remember much about the preaching in Madison Square Garden, but he fondly recalls Crusades since then.
“When they give the altar call, there’s nothing greater than to see the arena filled with people that are giving their heart to the Lord,” he said. Even today, Neff tries to follow Graham’s example.
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