( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcription was made by Bob Shuster, Katherine Graber and Paul Bartow was completed in September 2013.
Collection 74, T755. Interview of Robert C. Johnson by Robert Shuster on May 3, 2010.
SHUSTER: Uh this is an interview with Mr. Robert C. Johnson by Bob Shuster for the archives of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Took place over the telephone on May 3rd, 2010 at 9:00 AM. Mr. Johnson, let me ask you first: when and where were you born?
JOHNSON: I was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1917.
SHUSTER: 1917. And how did you come to Wheaton?
JOHNSON: Well, I came primarily because I was aware of it through the church that we attended which was the Gospel Tabernacle in Racine. And had a...cousin who attended Wheaton and graduated in 19...in 1938. And he encouraged me. There was a girl in our church who also attended there a bit earlier than that. So I was familiar with it, and I was anxious to go there.
SHUSTER: The Gospel Tabernacle that you attended in Racine, was that one of the ones started by Paul Rader?
JOHNSON: Well, there was a...one was just called the Gospel Tabernacle and there was another one which was the Union Gospel Tabernacle which was...actually a different location. But very much in accord.
SHUSTER: So...and what years did you attend Wheaton?
JOHNSON: What year I attended? 1937 to 1941.
SHUSTER: And how did you first meet Billy Graham?
JOHNSON: Pardon me?
SHUSTER: How did you first meet Billy Graham?
JOHNSON: Well, I...I don’t know exactly how I met him...it was my...junior year when he arrived and just got to know him just in the course of events.
JOHNSON: There was nothing specific about our meeting.
SHUSTER: What was his physical appearance at that time? What did he look like?
JOHNSON: What did he look like?
JOHNSON: Well, he was rather...tall. He was friendly, engaging, he was...at that point in time another student on campus. And...one who...fitted in very well...and became....We were never in a sense of...close friends in that category. But we knew each other and enjoyed...being together with him.
SHUSTER: What kind of impression did he make upon you?
JOHNSON: Well, again, at that moment in time, he was another person on campus. But we soon did get to know him as one who had been at Bob Jones [College in Tennessee] before. And just over the course of time we [pauses]found him to be a...a good companion etc. on campus.
SHUSTER: You mentioned in the note you sent me that he had been a close friend with Herb Major...
SHUSTER: ...and you were roommates with Herb Major, so...
JOHNSON: No, I wasn’t a roommate. There were...there were six of us in a house called the Moore house. And there were three of us who roomed together - Jerry Cozette and John [C.] Patterson and myself. Herb [E.] Major had a room of his own and then there was Ed Burkhatter and Armand Habegger who were freshmen from Indiana. So that comprised the six people that lived in that house. And I don’t know how Herb Major and Billy became friends but...Billy came over during my senior year rather frequently to see Billy Graham [apparently means Herb Major]. And a little bit of humor on that side of it because he was dating Ruth and we...would be teasing him and we would get the Old Spice and spray it on his lapel or you know a little bit on his clothing and encourage him to...its going give him a great “in” with Ruth when she knows you were here using the Old Spice.
SHUSTER: You mentioned in the...in the...in the paper that you sent to me that “at the time we thought of him as a bit naive, but warm, friendly, and outgoing.”
JOHNSON: Yes, he was, very much so.
SHUSTER: What did you mean by a bit naive?
JOHNSON: What did I mean by what?
SHUSTER: A bit naive. You said “a bit naive but warm, friendly, and outgoing.”
JOHNSON: Well, I...you can tease him on...you could...just...engage him in a way in which he wasn’t, you know, offended.
JOHNSON: And...and being...just in that sense he was...how should I describe it? That’s the only term I can think of.
SHUSTER: Now you were a senior and he was a sophomore. Did you have any classes together?
JOHNSON: No, no we were not. My wife and Billy had classes together and sat next to each other in...in chapel. And seeing him at the 50th class anniversary, she was interviewed and had the recording somewhere in your office.
SHUSTER: Yes, right, that’s collection 485, we have the guide to that on the web if you want to take a look at it. So apart from...of course...had he started preaching at the Union Gospel Tabernacle in town when you were a student?
JOHNSON: Yes, he...when Dr. Edman became president, Billy was given that opportunity. I suspect that Dr. Edman was very instrumental in that. Billy had been preaching at other opportunities and none that I recall of attending. But we did attend on the...at the Union Tab in the downtown when he was there.
SHUSTER: What...where was the Union Gospel Tabernacle?
JOHNSON: Well, it was down in the Masonic Lodge, I don’t remember the name of the street but it was more toward the downtown area than on the campus.
SHUSTER: And...was it in an auditorium like a theater auditorium or what did the...
JOHNSON: No, it wasn’t like an auditorium. It didndid not have fixed seats. They were folding chairs. And easily set up and easily taken down.
SHUSTER: And how large were the people...how large was the crowd that attended?
JOHNSON: Not large as I remember. Almost have...st all the folks who attended were students. Although there may have been other...
SHUSTER: Students from the college?
JOHNSON: It was...it was just...a warm gathering of kids who enjoyed being together and enjoyed Billy’s ministry.
SHUSTER: And about how many would there be usually on a Sunday?
JOHNSON: Oh, I would have guessed a couple hundred.
SHUSTER: A couple hundred? So it must have been a fairly large auditorium to...
JOHNSON: Yes it was. Yes, as I recall. It was a long, long time ago [laughs].
SHUSTER: Sure! What was his preaching style like, do you recall?
JOHNSON: Well, he was...he was never out of sympathy, he was very outgoing...he was in the terms of that day I would say he was very pleasantly dynamic and he was an encourager and he was one who preached I would say to a decision. Making people aware of what the Gospel was about and preaching in a...in a style that was to be really to be manifested over and over again as he became well-known and was preaching effectively.
SHUSTER: Did he move a lot, Around a lot when he preached?
JOHNSON: Well, he did move around. He was not stationary behind the pulpit. How much he moved, I don’t recall, but he was at ease in the pulpit as far as I could tell.
SHUSTER: Did...do you recall any of his sermons?
JOHNSON: I don’t recall his sermons, per se. I remember after we...graduated and we were living in Evanston, Illinois and we were visiting some friends and he was...Billy was preaching on a Sunday morning and there was an older lady who was a mother of one of the folks who was there. And she became so absorbed in what he was preaching, and he was preaching to a decision. And she just burst out all of the sudden “Young man, I made that decision years ago!” [Shuster laughs]. So it was...I would say that would characterize pretty much his ministry even when he was in the campus.
SHUSTER: Characterized by preaching for decision? [Pause] You said that would characterize his ministry, you mean preaching for decision?
JOHNSON: I think so, yes.
SHUSTER: So he usually gave an altar call when he was at the Tabernacle, when he was preaching at the Gospel Tabernacle? In town?
JOHNSON: Perhaps he did, but I don’t recall specifically.
SHUSTER: Anything else about his preaching at the Tabernacle that you would like to mention?
JOHNSON: No...that was just a...it’s hard to mix that past with the development of his ministry...
JOHNSON: ...and worldwide. The tendency probably is to apply some of we knew later to what was going on at the time.
SHUSTER: You mentioned that he often visited the Moore House where you were staying. What kind of things did you usually talk about?
JOHNSON: Well, he was in and out. It wasn’t a matter of sitting around talking in that house. It was always, pretty much at the time he was...just about ready to see Ruth. And it would be generally a Friday night or a Saturday night. And he would come to see her for some reason, as far as I know were quite close. But...the time we spent together in that area would be minimal. We were all going about whatever our business was and probably getting dressed for some occasion or other. And he would drop in and I think he had a purpose of dropping in with Herb. But it was just an occasion to get out the old spray and encourage him.
SHUSTER: I know that he and Ruth when they were at college were involved in something called the Mooseheart Sunday School. Do you know what that was?
JOHNSON: I guess you’ll have to say that again, I’m a little hard of hearing.
SHUSTER: Sure. When...I know that when he and Ruth were college students, they were involved in something called the Mooseheart Sunday School.
JOHNSON: Oh yes, right.
SHUSTER: What was the Mooseheart Sunday School?
JOHNSON: Well, it was an orphanage. I think it was over in St. Charles if I recall correctly. And in our...well, probably in my sophomore or junior year...we were...a couple of my friends would on occasion would go over and assist where we could be of help. It was a...it was a well known place for folks who wanted to be of some help teaching to...to get involved and over there. And laterally I don’t remember doing it but I do remember doing it early in my time at Wheaton. Being one of those who did go over and teach classes.
SHUSTER: Now you had graduated in June 1941, is that right?
JOHNSON: Yes, right. Yeah.
SHUSTER: And you had mentioned earlier in the note that you had sent me that you had gotten married about the same time as Billy and Ruth Graham and that your wedding gifts got confused, mixed up?
JOHNSON: Yes we were...Mary...I don’t know how...relatively close to each other but...one of our mutual friends sent gifts to Billy and Ruth and sent gifts to Mary and I. And somehow they got mixed up. And we got theirs and they got ours. And I think at that point, he was at the Village Church. And...or at the least in terms of our making the exchange, we...we did drive over and exchange the gifts. But I only remember the incident, I don’t remember much more than that about it.
SHUSTER: You mentioned Western Springs where he was pastor after he graduated. Did you ever hear him preach there?
JOHNSON: No, we...we were living in a different part of Chicago. We were living...on the far north side of Chicago right next to Evanston. And...we did not have occasion to go out that far. But Ruth happened to be in North Carolina and he called and asked if we could come out and visit with him. And we did. And the purpose of calling us out...he was looking for a...some immediate help. He needed a Sunday school superintendent and another teacher if he could find one. And I guess this is a reflection of his ingenuity, but in terms of trying to encourage us to come out to assist him and be with him, he had already lined up a house that we could purchase in Western Springs. And if...if I remember the incident correctly, he had...secured some assistance from Dr. Winegarden who was the...college physician. And the assistant being in the form of...willingness to finance the house if we could purchase it. But it was...an interesting afternoon. And we spent the whole afternoon with Ruth being away and we...sat on the porch and just chatted together. And...I was...working at Armour and Company in the stock yards and it was very difficult to travel from Western Springs into Chicago. And at least the stock yards...and as a result, it never materialized then. It was not long after that that he was engaged with Youth for Christ and left the church...anyhow.
SHUSTER: Why did he want you to be Sunday school superintendent? I mean why did he...?
JOHNSON: [Laughing] I guess he...he needed one. It was a...a relatively new work. And one of the problems I suppose was the fact that almost everybody was...men at least were in the service.
SHUSTER: Oh I see.
JOHNSON: There weren’t that many men around. And I happened to be differed because of the work I was doing.
SHUSTER: At Armour Plant, the Armour Meat Plant?
JOHNSON: I suspect that in his look for...suitable men and available men that I appeared to him to be somebody who might be able to do that.
SHUSTER: You mentioned Youth for Christ, did you...hear him when he was preaching at the YFC rallies around Chicago?
JOHNSON: Well, again, my memory says that Mary and I were at the first meeting of Youth for Christ at Orchestra Hall.
SHUSTER: Oh yes, right.
JOHNSON: My memory says that Dr. Harry Ironsides was there and Billy Graham was there, and I don’t know if that was the actual start of the association with him or not, but Torrey Johnson was, I think, one of the original founders. He was pretty much an organizer and...a searcher, a seeker for men who would be of assistance and help. And so Billy was as far as I know, was encouraged to be a part of that at that time.
SHUSTER: What...what was the rally in Orchestra Hall like?
JOHNSON: Orchestra Hall?
SHUSTER: Yeah, how would you describe that meeting?
JOHNSON: Well, you know a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. It was something new and...in the Christian world of that day and the Chicago area. And it had a lot of...had been given a fair amount of attention. We were just...happy to be there and excited to be there.
SHUSTER: Who made up the crowd? Was it teenagers or servicemen or a mixed crowd?
JOHNSON: I think probably there was a mixture of people there, but there was a fair amount of young people. It was just an exciting thing to be there and to be a part of it.
SHUSTER: What did the program consist of?
JOHNSON: That I don’t remember.
SHUSTER: Do you remember anything else about that evening?
JOHNSON: Well, I just remember being there and I...no clear memory of...the actual meeting itself. It just...for me that’s a long time ago.
SHUSTER: Sure, sure. I know that when Graham was a student at Wheaton, he was also working with John Streater who had a college trucking service. Did you have any...?
JOHNSON: I knew John, John Streator. He was in my class, class of ‘41. And I knew he was busy about things like that. But I had no association with it. And I didn’t know that Billy had worked for...
SHUSTER: What is...is there anything else you’d like to add about your friendship with Reverend Graham or about your time at Wheaton?
JOHNSON: Well, the only...the only thing that I can recall is that after our visit with him out in Western Springs, his life and his direction was in a different area than mine. And we pretty much went our separate ways. And we had moved from Chicago to Kankakee, Illinois and there was a...one of the early Urbana meetings was down in Champaign. And Billy was to be the speaker. And we drove down to be there. And...we...just in passing saw each other and sort of waved and...then when the meeting was over, we were on our way home and we stopped and had some refreshment just outside of Champaign. And Billy with an entourage of people came by and...it was a...you might say a chance meeting. And he was too much engaged in the group that he was with that he looked over and waved again. And it was sort of winsome. But it was the last chance that we ever were in each others’ presence. It would have been nice if we could have sat down and chatted a little bit, but he was...so much engaged with the people he was with.
JOHNSON: We just looked at each other and that was about it.
SHUSTER: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JOHNSON: Well, I was...at 9-11 when he spoke in the...in Washington.
SHUSTER: This was at the memorial service in 2001 after the terrorist attacks.
JOHNSON: I was so moved by what he said and how he said it that I sat down and wrote him a letter. And I got a form letter back, but I’m not sure he ever even saw it. I think one other time I wrote to him also. But I didn’t expect that I would get an answer. But I thought it would maybe be nice if I did. But I guess life had taken on a different dimension that our correspondence would not...not endure.
SHUSTER: Well, I...there’s nothing else that you wanted to add?
JOHNSON: Oh well, I guess certainly have a profound admiration for him in terms of his ministry and he was...his ministry I think incredible. But the thing that stands out more than anything else is his whole life was a testimony to the Lord. And there was never anything that ever occurred that would in any way reflect badly upon the Gospel, upon the church, or upon Billy himself. He was very much...a great servant of God and lived a life that was completely respectable. I’m glad I knew him a little bit. And I’m happy that our lives had...we had a chance to meet each other. And as is often said: “I’m glad you came my way and that our paths crossed.” I still think very highly of him. And I love him in the Lord.
SHUSTER: Well, Mr. Johnson, I appreciate you taking the time this morning to record this and thank you very much for adding this interview to the archives.
JOHNSON: Well,, thank you very much. I’m pleased to be interviewed.
END OF TAPE