Alumni Recall Impactful Trip to Bill Graham Revival on Day of Preacher's Passing

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Billy Graham brought revival to Minnesota in 1950.

Young and filled with the Holy Spirit, Billy Graham preached about souls broken down by sin on the road of life, and of the redeeming power of Christ to fix what was wrong. The Baptist evangelist attracted throngs of Minnesotans to the Minneapolis Auditorium for a twenty-day evangelistic crusade.

Hillcrest students got to go to the Sunday evening crusade, traveling on the school’s choir bus. Lovingly known as the ‘Old Blue Jet,’ the GMC school bus featured special individual seats so that its forty-two passengers could travel long distances in comfort. And travel they did; the bus brought the choir on 4,000-mile-long tours, once a year, every April. Brand-new in 1947, the bus transported the Hillcrest Choir to Seattle; in 1948, the choir toured in California. In 1950, it went all the way to New York City and the 59th Street Church in Brooklyn, and then back to Fergus Falls.

The bus would also bring a group of students to attend Billy Graham’s Minneapolis event. The trip to hear a young and spirit-charged Billy Graham was deeply memorable for the forty girls and boys from Hillcrest.

Dr. Billy Graham had electrified the nation, becoming America’s number-one evangelist by 1950. 1 Seating at his event in the Minneapolis Auditorium was on a “first come, first serve[d]” basis, with 11,000 chairs available. Graham’s basic message was simple: “This is God’s hour of decision and Minneapolis hangs in the balance.” The “hawk-nosed and handsome” preacher spoke with fiery passion.

“Flailing his arms, crouching and pointing, coiling his big [6’ 2”] frame around the Bible he read from” or “wrestling with the microphone, he gave his audiences not a moment’s emotional letup.” After preaching about “Heaven, Hell & Judgment Day,” his stirring concluding appeal was for sinners to make “decisions for Christ.” 2 Dr. Graham clearly expounded upon the idea that “heaven is a literal place,” and that “Christians go there the moment they die.” He preached that “there will be wonderful reunions as loved ones are recognized up there. . . . What a glorious place it will be—with streets of gold, the gates of pearl . . . and the trees bearing a different kind of fruit every month.” He gave a “detailed picture” of Heaven, and a description of Hell, as well. He described Hell as a place where “there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He said, “I believe . . . that there is literal fire in Hell, but if there is not . . . then the Bible is talking about something far worse when it speaks of the flames of hell. What ever it is going to be is so horrible that it cannot be expressed in the language of man.”

Graham’s “old-time religion,” as it came over the public address system, stressed the need for repentance from sin. Graham spoke in a metaphor about Judgment Day: “God is going to say, ‘start up the projector!’ Because from the cradle to the grave God has had His television cameras on you. God has every sinful word on his recording. The only thing that can save your soul is to let Jesus Christ come into your heart. Are you ready?”

Thousands of Americans had responded to Billy Graham’s call for revival. The blond-haired Calvinist-inspired Baptist preacher had become nationally known after his four-week- long Los Angeles Crusade in 1949, when over 250,000 came to hear him at “the largest revival tent in history.” The Hillcrest administration gave students an opportunity to be a part of that “great national revival,” as Dr. Graham proclaimed it, “an old-fashioned, heaven- sent, Holy Ghost revival.”

The Old Blue Jet bus took the students on a trip that was memorable not only for the chance to hear the “deep, cavernous voice” of the Southern Baptist evangelist, but also for a mishap-filled bus ride that had the students laughing and yawning and cringing and snoozing along the way.

One of those students was Mabel Benson, a Brooklyn girl who had just turned age sixteen. She recorded the events of that day in a letter to her mom and dad back east. Mabel had arrived in Fergus Falls just two weeks before the trip to the Crusade. She was new to Minnesota, being a junior at a boarding school far away from home. Here is Mabel’s story about her adventure as she wrote it to her parents, and as she has told it to this day.

Dear Mom, Dad, and [sister] Margie,

I am writing this letter in my free period (3rd period) and I am just about sleeping. We went to Minneapolis at one o’clock yesterday afternoon and arrived home about half-past six this morning.

We went on the choir bus and the art teacher Joel Lunde, and Harland Helland, a graduate from Hillcrest and a seminary senior, took turns driving. We got there fine in about four-and- one-half or five hours. We were supposed to be home before midnight because we had classes right away on Monday morning.

We heard Billy Graham, the great Evangelist that we read about in the Faith and Fellowship magazine a few months ago. The building held 11,000 and it was full and he had to go and preach a sermon just before he preached to the big audience, to 1,000 that had gathered in the annex. He was just wonderful. Hundreds made decisions for Christ.

You should have seen us on the way home. We were a little over half way and we stopped to get something to eat and when we were going to take off again, the bus wouldn’t start. The drivers had to crank the engine in the front but they could not get it to start.

So, Lunde and Helland and all of the boys came out of the bus and started to push it, with the thirty-five girls still on the bus, in order to turn over the engine to start it, and did we ever laugh! When it finally started, we drove quite a ways and then we had to stop and the drivers fixed something. 

When we were about twenty miles from home, near Evansville, the bus just completely stopped. The bearing on the distributor went out so that the rotor was turning off center so it wasn’t touching the contacts like it should.

Both of the drivers, Helland and Lunde, were farm boys who were quite mechanical and they figured out that if the distributor was held in a certain position, then the engine worked fine.

So Harland Helland had the idea that he could hold the distributor while Joel Lunde drove the bus. The hood opened from the side by the front fender and near the headlight and Harland figured that he could lie down on the fender, put the hood down over his upper body, and straddle the headlight, holding on to the headlight with his legs. He had Joel Lunde pull down the hood over his upper torso, with his bottom sticking out from the side of the hood. All we could see from the inside of the bus was his rear sticking up for about ten miles—we laughed until we were almost sick. It seemed like a happy ending but then everything started to go wrong.

After two miles we drove over a skunk and the laughter stopped suddenly. We hit it square and the front and rear tires squeezed the smell out of it good, and we had to stop to get air because the smell was so terrific. Under the hood, Harland had it worse—he put his nose right up to the engine’s carburetor because the gas smelled better than the skunk.

About six miles from home, and at about 2:30 in the morning, the bus stopped completely. It had run out of gas. And the battery was almost gone so it wouldn’t budge. We were going to send the art teacher to get help but there wasn’t one house in sight for we were in a place just like a flat prairie. We hadn’t been there more than two minutes before it started to lightning and we knew we were going to have a big storm, so it was no use trying to walk to a farmhouse. While the thunder roared and the lightning flashed terrifically, we tried to make ourselves comfortable and ready to stay there for a while and sleep, but we couldn’t—we had to get air because we thought the skunk must have gotten into the bus, the odor was so strong.

A truck finally came along and took one of the drivers, Harlan, to town, and he went to get his car and then he drove to Co-op Oil Company and hired a tow truck. And the tow truck came and the truck pushed us all the way home.

At six-thirty in the morning we came marching slowly in to the Hillcrest building so sleepy we could hardly walk. I guess that’s enough for that.”
— Mabel Helland

All the Hillcrest students got an opportunity to attend the Billy Graham Sunday Crusades. The Old Blue Jet bus made three trips to the Twin Cities that fall in 1950—two of the trips were smooth with no problems, but the bus ride Mabel Benson was part of would live on in her memory. It would go on to become a Hillcrest legend—an unforgettable combination of spiritual revival mixed with skunk scent and cranky engine troubles, with the thunder and roar of a late- September cloudburst, complete with the crackle of lightning in the dark of night.

It was funny how it worked out—Mabel Benson, the Brooklyn girl born to Norwegian immigrant parents, graduated from Hillcrest Academy in 1952 and returned to the East Coast to work. There, she became reacquainted with Harland Helland, who by this time had graduated from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary and was a youth worker at Brooklyn’s 59 th Street Church, where Mabel attended youth group. And so it was that the former bus driver and innovative mechanic who had grown up on a dairy farm in Fergus Falls married the big city girl who had once laughed at his ungainly appearance, draped on a blue-and- white bus fender, on the way home to Hillcrest after the famous Billy Graham Crusade.

Steve HoffbeckComment