Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Day I Met Billy Graham

On Thursday May 2, 1996 I flew to New York City to participate in the Point Of Purchase Advertising Institute's Day of Design Conference. The label I ran for Word Records, Everland Entertainment, had won POPAI's 1995 Display of the Year award for our touch-screen enabled KidCity Kiosk...made famous as the retail display system that launched Veggie Tales.

The Marriott Marquis NYC "street lobby" is mostly vacant, guests check-in on the 7th floor.
Every spring the winner of the previous year's award is invited to make a presentation at the day-long convention. Early in the afternoon I met up and checked-in to the Times Square Marriott with my Bronx-born pal, Patrick Manna, VP with Chesapeake Display & Packaging, who flew in from Winston-Salem. Despite the distraction of a dozen Victoria's Secret models checking in right ahead of us, and Evander Holyfield walking past us with his bejeweled entourage (he'd be fighting Bobby Czyz at Madison Square Garden Sunday night), Pat sighted Billy Graham at the elevators. We recalled that the legendary preacher had accepted the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, DC that morning, and figured he must be in town to do some network TV interviews. That afternoon Pat and I enjoyed playing billiards up on the 15th floor lounge, and that night we dined at a mid-town steak house with Word Records' Dave Alderfer, who worked at Sony/Epic in Manhattan.

The next morning, Friday, May 3rd, we made our presentation in a conference room and I said goodbye to Pat, who had POPAI obligations all afternoon. I checked out of my room, left my bags with the concierge and grabbed a late lunch. My ride to LaGuardia was set for 3:30pm, so I had a couple of hours to kill. Plenty of time to stroll over to Nat Sherman's on fifth avenue.

Ninety minutes later I was back at the hotel with thirty more minutes to kill. As soon as I entered the cavernous lobby, I was struck by how empty and quiet it was. Odd. From the front revolving doors to the concierge room at the back is about half a city block. As I began walking in that direction, a tall man wearing a UNC ball-cap rounded the corner from the escalators and walked toward me. Half a step behind him was a short, stocky fella wearing a salmon-colored blazer. I knew instantly Billy Graham was beneath that UNC hat.

While still twenty feet away, I called out to him: "Doctor Graham, Wayne Zeitner with Word Records, my colleagues Joey Paul and Kip Jordan are your editors." Billy Graham looked up at me from under his cap, turned to his associate with a nod, then back to me and shook my hand. I thanked him for never straying from his message, even that very morning to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. I told Billy Graham I had grown up hearing my grandfather, Arthur Zeitner in Medicine Hat, Alberta, pray for him in German with every table grace. I told him about the tribute to his ministry I'd seen a week earlier at the 1996 Dove Awards.

Billy Graham was gracious and patient, he told me a little bit about his schedule on the network shows that evening, discussed a recent unauthorized biography of him and spoke highly of my colleagues at Word. I don't think I kept him longer than he wanted to chat, but when I checked my watch I realized almost five minutes had passed. And as I watched him head out with his bodyguard to take a walk, another thing struck me: during our whole conversation, not another soul came thru the lobby of the Marriott Marquis hotel at Times Square in New York, New York.