CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Snowy-haired and silent, Billy Graham probably couldn't hear the cascading applause that greeted his Tuesday night entrance in a wheelchair.
Surrounded by hundreds of donors, family members and friends, the 91-year-old evangelist — his hearing nearly gone, his eyesight fading — had come home to Charlotte to help celebrate the reopening of the library bearing his name.
It was his first public appearance in Charlotte since May 2007, when three former presidents — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — joined him in dedicating the barn-shaped Billy Graham Library, which traces his trek from son of a dairy farmer in Charlotte to preacher to presidents and millions around the world. About 288,000 people have visited the library.
At the dinner Tuesday night, Graham thanked everyone, said a prayer and spoke about how memories of his Charlotte childhood are still with him: "I still dream about milking cows," he said to laughter from the crowd. "The other night I woke up and I was milking cows!"
Closed since January for upgrades and additions — including "The Cross," a massive new mural by artist Thomas Kinkade — the library off Billy Graham Parkway reopened to the public Wednesday.
Graham got a private tour Monday night. He liked the changes, which included improving the sound, displaying many of the 12,000 books in Graham's personal library and showcasing his first desk and Dictaphone machine.
But those with him recalled that he lingered in "Ruth's Room," a section devoted to his late wife, and then sat for a good while by her grave, located at the end of a cross-shaped walkway outside the library.
Everyone left him alone.
Whatever he said in those private moments, son Franklin reported Tuesday, "is between the Lord and my mama. Daddy misses her very much."
After he left the graveside, Graham confided to his longtime assistant, David Bruce, how happy he was that the library was being used as a continuation of his ministry rather than just a memorial to him.
"He said he left with the feeling that the Gospel permeates the library," Bruce said. "That was his wish: that it be a testimony to all that he preached about."
It was Bruce who wheeled Graham into the dining hall Tuesday night at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association building next door.
To get there, they first had to pass by a small army of reporters.
"How are you feeling?" came a shouted question.
"He can't hear," answered the nearby Franklin Graham.
Inside, Graham got a kiss from his younger sister, Jean Ford of Charlotte, who is Graham's only surviving sibling.
"I'm so glad to see you," she said, speaking close to his ear.
"Glad to see you," he said.
Brother and sister held hands during the before-meal prayer by Cliff Barrows, the choir director during Graham's 60 years of crusades and the voice of his radio show, "Hour of Decision."
Graham, who tires easily, skipped a late afternoon ceremony that featured the unveiling of Kinkade's painting, which he did for free "to help the ministry," the artist said.
But Graham was determined, Bruce said, to make the dinner and "share a few words from his heart."
"I think he's doing very well," Bruce said. "He does deal with the challenges of advanced age. But he's sharp of mind and heart."
Graham's last crusade was in 2005 in New York. Since his wife's death nearly three years ago, he has spent nearly all of his time at the Grahams' mountaintop home in Montreat, where he has around-the-clock nursing care. He still likes to follow the news on TV but can no longer read, even the Bible, without help.
His public appearances have been rare. He did attend his own 90th birthday party, at a West Virginia resort, in 2008. Last year, he was in Asheville to help celebrate the 100th birthday of George Beverly Shea, the bass-baritone soloist at Graham crusades.
Bruce said Graham hasn't lost the desire to preach again. "He would love to do that," Bruce said. "But he knows that's all in the Lord's hands."