For nearly 50 years, Kathie Lee Gifford has been inspired by a dear friend who has moved millions with his sermons.
The Rev. Billy Graham has been a prominent Christian evangelist since the late 1940s, and Kathie Lee was able to celebrate his 95th birthday with him last week. He has been a part of her life since she was 12 years old, which she shared Wednesday as part of TODAY’s week-long #InspiredBy series in which anchors and fans on social media share their inspirations.
“I've never met in my life a more powerful man who is as humble as Billy is,’’ Kathie Lee said.
Her first encounter with Graham came when she was 12 years old and entered a room in her home to see her mother and sister sobbing on their knees in front of the television.
“I thought maybe the president had been killed or something terrible had happened,’’ she said. “It turns out that no, they had both just watched a Billy Graham crusade, and both of them had come to faith by watching the power of his message through a television screen.”
Later that year, Kathie Lee went to a local theater to see the move “The Restless Ones,” which was released in 1965 and created by a subsidiary of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“The movie is about a young girl on the cusp of when you start to make big decisions in your life,’’ Kathie Lee said. “The kind that your parents don't make for you. Am I going to go towards that way of faith, and trust God to make something beautiful out of my life?
“I felt that I heard God (speak) to me, and not audibly. It wasn't a weird thing. It was a magnificently sweet and simple thing. ‘I love you, Kathie, and if you'll trust me with your life, I will make something beautiful out of it.’’’
The movie moved many to offer a profession of faith and is regarded as the best-known production by Graham’s company.
“They gave like an altar call in the movie theater and said, ‘Whoever would like to come forward and make this step of faith,’ and I could not get out of my seat fast enough,’’ she said. “I flat-out believed the whole thing. I've never stopped believing it.
“Greatest decision I ever made in my life. My entire family came to faith through Billy for eternity.”
Graham also joined Kathie Lee for her Christmas special in 1994, which was a rare appearance for him on secular television. When Graham showed up at her home for the special, a grateful Kathie Lee asked him if there was anything she could get for him to make him more comfortable.
“He's got a little twinkle, and he goes, ‘Anything?’’’ Kathie Lee said. “I went, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, ‘Could I have a Big Mac?’ I just thought, ‘Billy Graham likes Big Macs.’ You gotta love it. He's just human!”
Graham also has been there for Kathie Lee during some difficult periods in her life.
“When I went through very, very tough times when I was accused of awful things, the first phone call I got was from Billy Graham,’’ she said. “When my husband was unfaithful to me, and it was a terrible time, you know who Billy called first? Frank. He called Frank first.
“Then I got on the line. He wanted to talk to both of us. He knew that healing had to be from both of us.”
With Graham recently turning 95, Kathie Lee is savoring the time she has left with him.
“The day that the Lord finally calls Billy home, I will feel every emotion that day,’’ she said. “I will be overwhelmed with sadness that my friend is physically gone, and I will be overjoyed with love for him and gratitude that he's in heaven and his struggle will be over.
“I hope I can wrap my arms around his dear neck as I have so many times through these years, and say for the last time, ‘Thank you, Billy, and I love you.’’’