03/28/2013 10:46 am ET Updated May 23, 2013

Evangelist of the 20th Century goes to . . . ?

Evangelist of the 20th Century goes to . . . ?

By unanimous vote of the school's Board of Trustees, Carson-Newman University, located in Jefferson City, TN, has named the "Evangelist of the 20th Century." May I have the envelope please? Oh, you want a couple of clues first? Sure.

The deserving recipient of the award is often referred to as "America's Pastor," having served as spiritual advisor to every U.S. President since Dwight Eisenhower. The honoree has been named to the Gallup Organization's "Top Ten Most Admired Men in the World" 56 times since 1948, more than any other individual. For more than 60 years he has traveled the world preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ on every continent to more live audiences than anyone in history, an estimated 215 million people in 185 countries, and more than a billion people via various media.

The "Evangelist of the 20th Century" has published 31 books, appeared on the cover of Time magazine three times, and is the recipient, along with his late wife, of the United States Congressional Gold Medal.

He accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior during a revival in Charlotte, NC, in 1934, answered the call to preach in 1938, and was ordained to the Gospel ministry in 1939. By 1949, he was preaching tent revivals in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston, to as many as 400,000 people over a period of weeks.

What is his own assessment of his ability? "I'm not a great preacher, and I don't claim to be a great preacher. . . . I'm an ordinary preacher, just communicating the Gospel in the best way I Know how."

And the winner is . . . . the Reverend Doctor Billy Graham!

On Friday, March 22, 2013, in what must be one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, I was privileged to present Dr. Graham with the Award in his home. Accompanying me were my wife, Kay, C-N Vice President, Danny Nicholson, and photographer, Charles Key. Welcoming us were Mr. Graham's daughter, Ruth, namesake of his late wife, and Mr. Graham's Chief-of-Staff, David Bruce.

As you know, "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control," are the Fruit of the Spirit. Add to these grace and hospitality and you have a perfect description of how we were received and embraced. What warm, intimate fellowship!

Presenting Dr. Graham the "Evangelist of the 20th Century Award" is one of the highlights of my life. The saint was deeply touched, genuinely humbled, and profoundly grateful. He graciously thanked me and Carson-Newman University then whispered, "While I do not deserve this award, I accept it in the name of the One whom I have sought to serve all my life." Oh, my.

Mr. Graham celebrates his 94th Easter Season this year, growing more like his Lord every year. He is one of the most humble persons I have ever met, so kind, so gracious, so gentle, so unassuming. His person exudes goodness, projects purity, radiates the Holy Spirit . Praying, which we did, is like breathing for him, and just as natural. His purpose is singular. "My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God," he testifies, "which, I believe, comes through knowing Jesus Christ." I teased him saying, "I feel like I'm meeting the Pope."

Okay, I admit it. Billy Graham is my hero. In case you missed my last name, it's O'Brien---just a "tad" Irish, isn't it, lad and lass? My grandfather and father preferred libations and locales other than communion wine and church. They were my heroes, too, but not fellow churchmen. I think it's fair to say their preferred confessors were bartenders, not priests. Yet, they loved Billy Graham.

Perhaps they sensed his manhood and brotherhood in hard work. They could not have known that Billy Frank, as his family knew him, rose every morning at 3 a.m. to milk cows on the family dairy farm. But his huge hands did look like theirs. Billy Frank was a man's man, and my Irish forebears respected him.

Upon returning home from Vietnam nearly 45 years ago, now desiring to live a Christian life, I checked a biography of Billy Graham out of our local library, read it, loved it, but ironically, did not return it. A few years later after being called into the ministry myself, I mailed the book back to the library along with a note and a check. I must say it felt good confessing my peccadillo to Reverend Graham, who enjoyed the story and pardoned me with a smile.

When the Billy Graham Crusade came to Jackson, MS, in 1975, Randy Turner and I attended every night. We have both been mightily inspired and influenced by Dr. Graham, who would preach no crusade anywhere, not in the South, not in South Africa, unless all races were free to attend. Moreover, he would never be alone with a woman other than his wife, not in an automobile, not in an elevator, not anywhere at all. He became our model and mentor, and also for thousands like us.

Perhaps I should have shared with Reverend Graham that in Mississippi, we loved Jesus, Elvis, and Billy Graham. I think he would have laughed. He certainly beamed with joy when we shared how much his beloved daughter, Ruth, means to Carson-Newman. We have adopted each other in our shared love of students, ministering to them, and challenging them to join us in serving, living and leading for Christ. Oh, the lives Ruth has touched! Like father, like daughter.

As our time together drew to a close, Reverend Graham closed his eyes to pray for us and for Carson-Newman. Then I prayed for him. I almost told Kay to hold my pants cuff tightly; I felt like I was being raptured. There are no words.

His words---those of the" Evangelist of the 20th Century,"--- should close our conversation:

"Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don't you believe a word of it! I shall be more alive than I am now. I will have just changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God."

My hero.