Billy Graham (copy)

The Rev. Billy Graham, who died Wednesday, knew how to speak to thousands in a stadium and a high school girl in Tampa, as reporter George Morris recalls.

Editor's note: Reporter George Morris remembers his meeting with Billy Graham almost 40 years ago and what the evangelist did for a high school girl.

Religion writer has never been a glamour beat at any daily newspaper, and it wasn’t when it was my job at The Tampa Times in Florida almost 40 years ago. But that changed briefly in 1979.

The Billy Graham Crusade came to Tampa Stadium.

Few younger than 35 probably remember how much of a staple Graham was not only in Christian life but in the broader culture. In addition to filling stadiums worldwide, his crusade meetings would show up on prime-time television.

At the luncheon that opened his weeklong visit to Tampa, everybody in town who was anybody — including ship-building magnate and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner — made sure to be seen alongside him.

Although he certainly would have rejected applying the term to himself, Graham was a religious rock star. Getting a one-on-one with him was the most coveted interview at the paper, and I had it.

At the end of the first crusade meeting, teens from the church I attended surrounded me on the stadium turf and asked when I’d get to meet with the evangelist. With youth, there’s always one in every crowd, and in this crowd, it was Ana Aldrich.

Me: “I’ll interview him tomorrow.”

Ana: “Tell Billy I said hi!”

Me: “It’s going to be …”

Ana: “Tell Billy I said hi!”

Me: “… a half hour …”

Ana: “Tell Billy I said hi!”

Me: “… before the crusade meeting …”

Ana: “Tell Billy I said hi!”

Me: “OK, Ana.”

Ana: “You've got to do it! You promised!”

Me: *Sigh.*

The next night, I entered a motor home parked in the stadium's southwest corner. Graham unfolded his lanky frame from his chair and greeted me with a handshake. The evangelist was known for a voice that could thunder, but, for this interview, his voice was measured, his answers soft. Some famous pastors convey a confidence that borders on the smug. Graham seemed cautious. I remarked on this.

“I’m nervous right now,” I recall him saying. “I’m nervous that I might say something that could hinder the gospel.”

That gospel — that Jesus’ death and resurrection provides eternal life for all who believe — had been the heart of every sermon Graham had preached since he became an evangelist in the late 1940s.

However, Graham already had learned how he could inadvertently get in the way of that message. His close association with President Richard Nixon proved embarrassing when the Watergate scandal and tapes of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations came to light. By 1979, Graham had backed away from politics, a ministry arc opposite of that followed by his older son Franklin.

Graham spoke about how his ministry worked to include all denominations who embraced the gospel, which subjected him to critics on both ends of the theological spectrum. And he emphasized the care he took that ministry donations were handled appropriately. (An aide made sure I knew the motor home where we sat had been loaned for the occasion.)

After 25 minutes, that aide conspicuously checked his watch. Hint taken. I thanked Graham for his time, then abused a few more seconds of it.

“I’m sorry, but so I can remain an honest man, I’m obligated to tell you that Ana says hi,” I said.

Graham flashed a warm smile and asked me for a piece of paper. I flipped the page on my legal pad and handed it to him. He wrote, “God Bless You, Anna. Billy Graham.”

Ana's jaw dropped when I handed it to her that Sunday. She seemed to neither notice nor care that her name was misspelled.

All this came back to mind Wednesday with the news that Graham left this earthly life at age 99. I long ago lost contact with Ana, but I have to believe she kept that note. What would you bet she dug it out and looked at it this week?

Follow George Morris on Twitter, @GWMorris.