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Popular Televangelist Billy Graham Dead At 99

CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) -- Rev. Billy Graham, a popular televangelist whose sermons reached more than 200 million people in 184 countries, has died at age 99.

Graham, who had been battling Parkinson's disease, was found dead Tuesday morning at his home in North Carolina.

Raised in the fundamentalist Christian tradition, Graham was ordained a Baptist minister in 1939, and created his own brand of populist evangelism.

Graham graduated from Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school, in 1943 with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. According to the college, he began his ministry there as a student, both on campus and through "other outreaches." He also served as pastor of a local church, United Gospel Tabernacle, in his senior year at Wheaton College.

He also met his future wife, fellow student Ruth Bell, while at Wheaton College, and the two began their ministry together when they graduated.

"Billy Graham proved faithful to the end as a 'prophet with honor,'" Wheaton College president Dr. Philip Ryken said. "I was just starting high school when the Billy Graham Center was dedicated and Billy Graham preached to a huge crowd on Wheaton's front campus. I was there that day, sitting on a picnic blanket and listening to Dr. Graham preach the gospel he loved to proclaim—the good news of forgiveness for sin and the free gift of eternal life through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like countless others who heard Billy Graham preach, I re-committed my life to Christ."

For nearly two years after graduating from Wheaton College, Graham served as pastor of Western Springs Baptist Church, before becoming a traveling evangelist.

In 1947, Graham began hosting his signature brand of preaching and musical events, which he called "crusades," eventually attracting millions of people in person and through television.

Over seven decades, Graham brought his crusades to nearly every state, as well as South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, India, and the Far East.

Life Magazine once listed Graham as one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century.

Graham held two crusades in Chicago, the first in 1962. Jackie Countryman, of Joliet, was there and literally had a run-in with the famous televangelist when she was only 15.

"He was running down the stairs from the stage, and he accidentally bumped into me, and he quickly said he was sorry, touched my shoulder. I didn't say anything to him. He was just gracious and kind then, and I'll never forget that moment," she said.

Countryman became a dedicated Christian at one of Graham's crusades, and thinks many others changed their lives at his events too.

"I think Chicago and Illinois and that area really needed that type of 'Let's turn back to Christ, let's get ourselves on the right path here,'" she said.

Graham's other Chicago crusade filled McCormick Place in 1971.

"We've been having a marvelous time here in Chicago," he said at the time. "Thousands of people just about filled to capacity today."

Graham's visits to the Chicago area also included a stop at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, where he led inmates in prayer, and urged them to begin living a Christian life.

The evangelist also helped establish the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in 1980, to serve as a hub for training pastors, church directors, student leaders, and others dedicated to Christian evangelism.

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