Category Archives: Obituary

Reflections on the lives of noteworthy persons.

Dishonor thy Mother

The Billy Graham Library tells the story of a vile and sickening son

✎  Wayne K. Spear | March 5, 2018 • Politics


W

ILLIAM MARTIN, author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, says Franklin Graham’s relationship with President Trump “will come to embarrass him.” But for that to occur, Mr. Graham will need the capacity to feel embarrassment, for which there’s no evidence.

Franklin Graham

During the funeral of his father, Franklin reminded his audience how humble the man had been, and that he would have disapproved of the attentions given him on the grounds of a 40,000-square-foot museum dedicated exclusively to his life and work, and no one laughed. Nor did the obituaries delve, as far as I’m able to tell, into the origins of this tourist trap, ludicrously called the Billy Graham Library and set up by Franklin to further milk the lucrative family brand by exploiting the memory of his dead parents.

The backstory of the Billy Graham Library tells you everything you need to know about the vile money-and-power-grubbing charlatan who now controls the $300M “non-profit” and tax-exempt Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, or BGEA, and its annual revenues in excess of $100M. Franklin Graham had the idea for the compound in 2001, and it soon became the occasion of a bitter family struggle in which he prevailed. A family struggle, because Franklin’s plan required the burial of his parents on the museum’s Charlotte, North Carolina, property, in violation of the wishes of his mother, Ruth Graham.

Ruth and her son often engaged in power struggles, and as a child, as now, Franklin was stubborn and aggressive. This was no different. Once Billy had transferred control of the BGEA to his son, Franklin took his proposal to the city and leveraged an eventual family shrine for a sweetheart deal on 60 acres of land adjacent the Billy Graham Parkway, where the business headquarters and Billy Graham Library now reside. BGEA then received funding for the Billy Graham Library, including $1,000,000 from The Charlos Foundation. (Franklin has arranged his affairs in a way that allows him to pay for nothing and to profit from everything.)

The Graham siblings denounced Franklin’s proposal, calling it tasteless and tacky and little more than a tourist trap and money-making operation, beneath the dignity of their father’s reputation. One of the daughters referred to the Billy Graham Library as The Cracker Barrel, and Ruth denounced it is as a circus. The conflict-averse Billy audited these views but refused to participate, saying only that wherever Ruth ended up, he would be buried by her side. And so it was. Billy Graham announced the final resting place of his wife on June 13, 2007, at the point when she no longer had the physical capacity to speak on her own behalf, or to object. “I know this goes against my mother’s wishes,” Ned Graham was quoted as saying.

All of this, and much more, is detailed in a December 2006 Washington Post article, “A Family at Cross-Purposes,” by Laura Sessions Stepp. From Stepp we learn that, while lucid, Ruth Graham was clear that under no circumstances was she to be buried in Charlotte. Her wish was to be interred where she had lived for many years, in the mountains, but Franklin had his scheme and would not be thwarted. Because he controlled the family’s resources, and because his personality tends toward dominance (like the grifter President he so often defends) Franklin bludgeoned his siblings, and likely also his father, into submission. Ruth Graham was buried on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library, aka the circus, on June 17, 2007, nine days after its opening.

And a circus of a kind it is, a heavily subsidized, “40,000-square-foot experience” and Disney-styled cash cow—in this case, a singing animatronic cash cow who welcomes over 200,000 visitors each year along their “Journey of Faith” through the museum and toward Ruth’s Attic Bookstore and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar. (One of the Billy Graham Library’s designers, ITEC Entertainment Co., is unsurprisingly a theme park contractor who has done work for Disney.) The website billygrahamlibrary.org helpfully informs prospective visitors that cash, personal checks, American Express, Discover, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted. Admission is free, but donation boxes are located in the lobby for those who want to subsidize Mr. Graham’s paranoia, hate, cultural warfare, and generous annual compensation, which ranges from $880,000 to over $1,000,000.

Gord Downie, 1964–2017

His place in the firmament of Canadian music is well established

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 19, 2017 ◈ Obituary

I

’VE NEVER BEEN A Tragically Hip fanatic, and that’s a shame, because the two shows that I saw were the kind of show a fanatic would give an arm to have attended.

o-GORD-DOWNIE-facebook.jpgGord Downie established himself as a symbol of Canada

The first performance was in a St Catharines bar called The Hideaway, before The Hip were well-known, in the mid-1980s. We were so close to the stage that the sweat from Rob Baker’s hair was raining down on me and my friends, so we retreated into the crowd. The next and last time I saw The Hip was in 1994, in a small Kingston pub, where the band suddenly turned up for an unannounced free show. At the time I was hanging around with the curator of a local art gallery whose painter boyfriend was a close friend of the fellow who painted the cover of Day for Night. I got a call telling me to get to the pub, now, which I did, only minutes before it filled to beyond capacity.

The Tragically Hip made the most sense to me in bars, the seedier the better. I remember stepping into a Sudbury dive as the chorus to Little Bones played on the radio. I sat in the corner with my watery beer, and the song felt like the soundtrack of the place. In Sault Ste Marie, New Orleans Is Sinking. In Prince Albert, Courage. In Moncton, Ahead by a Century. Then there was Bobcaygeon, a song in a category of its own because some of my earliest memories are of the cottage my family had there, in the 1960s and 70s. We love musicians because they make music, and we love music because it captures and preserves our fondest memories like an amber that you can dance and sing along to.

Every obituary is about its author as well as its subject. We write of others to affirm our values and to praise what we hope to have within ourselves. A life lived is an object lesson, a set of actions and commitments to be appraised, celebrated, or (in some cases) denounced. And one day my friend you will arrive at the place, if you haven’t already, where the obituaries make you think, “my goodness, I’ll be that old very soon” or “she was younger than I” or (as I thought of Gord Downie) “he was the same age as me.” A selfish thought, but also human.

I am tempted to reach for the cliché that Gord Downie died before his time, but of course the time when one leaves this world is by definition his time. He died young, doubtless before he had said everything he wanted to say and before he had made everything he wanted to make. But he was also old enough to have left an indelible and enviable mark upon Canadian music and culture. The depth of his influence was revealed last May when news of a tumour went out to a stunned public. The tour that followed ranks among the most widely viewed and widely discussed in Canadian music history, as the outpouring of sentiment, then and now, attests. Gord Downie managed to do what only a handful of Canadian musicians have done—establish himself as a symbol of Canada. In this, he has joined the company of Gordon Lightfoot and Stomping Tom and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, all of whom, please note, are a full generation older.

Gord Downie committed himself late in life to causes including environmentalism and raising awareness of the Indian Residential School System. At the end, knowing his time was short, there came a final blast of creative fury. He took up the story of Chanie Wenjack, creating a book and album and film about the real-life boy who died trying to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. He set up the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. He became a prominent vocal proponent of Indigenous people, in a time when there were already numerous books, by Indigenous people, on numerous topics including residential schools.

An October 21, 2016 Walrus article asks, “Why is Gord Downie getting more attention for retelling Indigenous history than Indigenous artists?” The short answer is that Downie, because he was a rock star, could reach an audience few if any Indigenous authors could. That’s an unpleasant truth for those of us who are the Indigenous authors of books about the Indian residential schools, but it’s a truth nonetheless. I remember the day Secret Path arrived to fill the windows of a local bookstore where my book, Residential Schools, wasn’t even stocked. Again, the selfish but also human thoughts. I was glad the Wenjack story would get out, but I wished it didn’t take a pop-culture celebrity to do it. Are we going to have to assign a rock icon to each of the thousands of Chanie Wenjacks?

It’s too soon to say what Downie’s influence and legacy will be as these pertain to his twilight interest in Chanie Wenjack and Indigenous people generally. But his place in the firmament of Canadian music is well established. Gord Downie’s music will live on, and so will the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund. May good come of it.