When Jean Graham Ford addresses the audience at the third annual Ladies Tea & Tour on April 24, she’ll see very familiar sights. The youngest sister of Billy Graham grew up in the house that is part of the renovated Library complex in Charlotte.
Witty, gracious and very energetic at the age of 77, Jean took time from her busy schedule to talk about the upcoming Tea, her big brother, and how God has moved in her life over the years. Our discussion about the death of her son, Sandy, will be featured in a special Mother’s Day story.
Q: We are excited that you are the special guest at our Ladies Tea & Tour. Do you enjoy public speaking?
JGF: I think I may have been a little bit before my time in that I taught Bible study for years and years, and I’ve spoken all over the world, not just to women but to men, to mixed groups. I was very comfortable in doing that, and I’ve always been myself. I haven’t tried to be anybody else.
Q: I was just looking through Just As I Am and Billy tells the story about when you were 4. Your dad put you on the table and you started preaching. Technically, that makes you the first preacher in the family!
JGF: I think, as I remember that, Billy Frank is the one who put me on the table to show off his little sister with the blonde curls. He thought I was cute.
Q: Your brother is almost 14 years older than you. He was probably in college or just beginning to preach when you were small, but what are some of your early memories?
JGF: Well, in one of my earliest memories, he put me on his shoulders and carried me through the house, but forgot there was a divider between the rooms. My head hit the divider and it knocked me off! That was not a very happy first memory but that’s sort of my first memory. In my eyes though, I hate to say this, he can really do no wrong. Being so much older, it was sort of like having a second parent. I’ve always just adored him and still do.
Q: Do you remember how you began your relationship with Jesus?
JGF: No, I don’t. I remember one of my church leaders told Billy that he was converted at his ’58 crusade. He said to Billy, “When did Ruth come to Christ?” Ruth always said, “I don’t know.” It’s the same for me. Billy had a dramatic conversion experience. I did not have that. I grew up knowing God, loving Him. I questioned some of the things that had happened in our lives, but I never had any rebellion. That’s just not my nature.
Q: What is God teaching you in this season of your life?
JGF: I think one of the things I’m learning in my old age is to be who God wants me to be and not what anybody else wants me to be. That doesn’t mean I don’t fit into other people’s plans and agendas, because I certainly do, with children, grandchildren, husband. I think in this stage of my life, I still am very involved in a lot of things, almost too much in a way. But I am learning perhaps more and more about who He wants me to be through the study of the Scripture, through the quiet times.
I’m a Brother Lawrence type; I sort of “pray the work.” I pray as I go, more than taking an hour or two hours to pray. I do take time, like I take time to talk to my husband every morning and every night, a special time. But we have conversations during the day, too, and that’s what prayer is for me – a continual conversation. Even as I talk with you, I’m praying that God will use this in a way for His glory. I think He’s teaching me a lot about myself.
Q: You mentioned your husband, who actually worked here at the BGEA for years. Tell us about how you met him.
JGF: Billy went to Canada, where my husband is from, and Leighton was head of Youth for Christ in his hometown when he was 15-years old. He was tall, six-foot-four, and everybody thought he was older. So at 15, he was head of Youth for Christ. He’d have a thousand people on Saturday nights and when he was about 16, I guess, he invited Billy to come and speak to a Youth for Christ rally.
Billy told him about his kid sister and he told Leighton about Wheaton. When Billy came home, he told me about a young Canadian he had met. So at Wheaton some months later, we met each other and on a second date we fell helplessly in love.
Q: So Billy definitely played a role; that’s great.
JGF: On our third date, we went and heard Billy preach in St. Louis, I think. We were at Wheaton, and Billy took me aside and he said, “If I went around the world three times, I could never find anybody I’d rather you to be married to,” but by then we were in love and agreed.
Q: You’re the sister of a very famous person and the wife of another famous man. Have you ever at some point struggled with your own identity?
JGF: You know, I’ve always loved the fact that I’m Billy’s sister and I’ve always more than loved that fact that I’m Leighton’s wife. Sometimes, I think, as I look back, I have some regrets that women were not allowed a little more of a voice in the Christian world. I think we have a little more of a voice now. I don’t mean in a feminist way though. But I have never resented being the sister of someone so recognized and the wife of another. I’m loving it; every moment of it.
Don’t miss part two of this interview, which we will feature on Mother’s Day.