Billy Graham Has a Son, If Not a Successor, at Work in the Fields of the Lord

updated 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

He has a lot of his father's looks and even some of the vaunted charisma. Yet William Franklin Graham III, son and namesake of the world-famous evangelist, was not to the pulpit born. A onetime college dropout with a prodigal's taste for whiskey, he threatened to give the Graham name an embarrassing working over. Through it all, his parents kept an affectionate vigil. "We knew," explains Billy Graham, "that until he came back and realized he was wrong, our love would hold up."

Ultimately he did come back, and his parents' stubborn love was rewarded. Earlier this month, in the presence of his mother and father and 2,500 well-wishers, Graham III, 29, was ordained into the Christian ministry at the Grace Community Church in Tempe, Ariz. "In case anyone else is worried about a son who is away from God, don't worry, nobody's hopeless," his mother, Ruth, joked happily. The Rev. Billy Graham, visibly moved by the two-hour ceremony, embraced his son and pronounced the occasion "a culmination of my life's work."

In his own easygoing way, Franklin, as he is known, suggests that the elder Grahams may have worried too much. Far from being a rebel, he insists, "I've never had any real disagreement with my father on anything." But he admits to a long-felt need for independence. "My father accepted Christ because he chose to do so," Franklin says. "I had to do the same—my way."

The fourth in a family of five children, with three older sisters and one younger brother, Franklin remembers that his father was often absent from their Montreat, N.C. home. "Once he was gone on a crusade for six months, and when he came back none of us children recognized him," he recalls. "My mother always tells the story of my coming to their bedroom one morning, peering in, and asking her who was that strange man in bed with her."

Franklin was only 8 when he made his first decision for Christ. "But then as I got into my teen years, my interests were not on spiritual things," he admits. "I was interested in the world and life—girlfriends, flying, motorcycle racing, whatever I was doing." His grades suffered and he was asked to leave a small Christian college in Texas. During that period, he drove a Land-Rover across Turkey with a bottle of whiskey in one hand because he liked to travel "relaxed." Understandably, his parents were worried.

Later, Franklin Graham attended a junior college in Montreat and eventually graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. as a business-major. "I got tired of being selfish," he says matter-of-factly. A steadying influence was his 1973 marriage to Jane Austin Cunningham. "Would you pray for us?" he asked the guests at his wedding. "My wife and I have turned over our lives to Christ."

For Franklin, that has meant assumsing the presidency of Samaritan's Purse, a nonprofit missionary organization headquartered in Boone, and of its affiliate, World Medical Missions. One program that Graham supervises sends U.S. physicians to Third World countries.

Franklin travels frequently, allowing himself less time than he would like with his own three boys, 7-year-old Will (William Franklin Graham IV), Roy, 4, and Ned, 2. "I only hope that I'll be able to teach them what my father taught me—to have them grow up and love the Lord," he says. But Franklin quickly scotches reports that he is being groomed to succeed his 63-year-old father as worldwide evangelist. "God gave my father a special talent, one he can't pass on by his own choice," the younger Graham says. "I believe God has called me to my own work."

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