EAST COBB — Amid violent spring thunderstorms, family, friends and colleagues gathered in the refuge of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church to honor the late Rev. Henry Holley, 366 days after his death at the age of 92.
East Cobb resident Holley was the last living member of the inner circle of Rev. Billy Graham, an evangelical preacher who reached global audiences and one of the most influential religious leaders of the 20th century. A small, private burial service was held last year, in the early stages of the pandemic. But on Monday, a full-fledged celebration of life took place at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in east Cobb, where Holley had been a member. More than 100 attended.
Bryant Wright, the former senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist, called Holley, who was a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, “a faithful soldier to his nation” and “a faithful soldier to his Jesus Christ.”
Fellow Marine and former Cobb Commission Chairman Mike Boyce recalled he and Holley’s Waffle House meals together, describing Holley as meek, but strong, and a true Christian.
Each of Holley’s children gave emotional eulogies, describing their father as the most generous man they had ever known, both materially and with his time and love. Debbie Holley, one of his daughters, described his penchant for sending people letters of congratulation and gifting them mementos, especially ties. Clay Smith, Johnson Ferry Baptist’s current senior pastor, received an entire box of ties from Holley, who had teased him about his sometimes haphazard knots.
Others shared stories about traveling and working with Holley, who was instrumental in planning Graham’s “crusades,” trips to countries around the world through which Graham preached to hundreds of thousands in a matter of days. Holley’s work took him everywhere from Brazil to the demilitarized zone at the border between North and South Korea.
Her entire life, Debbie Holley said she’s been asked, “Are you Henry Holley’s daughter?”
“When I wasn’t walking close with the Lord, I have to admit that when somebody would ask me that question I’d have to stop and think what I was doing before I would answer,” she said. “The good thing is, for many years now, I can just say, ‘Yes, I am.’”
Holley was preceded in death by his wife of 67 years, Bettie, who he called his “beloved.” In his final years, Holley would say he was “prayed up, packed up, and ready to be picked up.”
“Half of Daddy’s heart had gone with her,” Debbie Holley said. “He longed for the Lord to take him home. But there were more people to tell about Jesus, and he was obedient.”
Nancy Holley told the story of the blind date where her parents met. Bettie had wanted to back out, but her mother insisted she honor the appointment. The rest is history.
“But there was one issue. Betty had a young daughter – me,” Nancy Holley said. “When Henry asked Bettie to marry him, he asked her if he could adopt me as his daughter. Wow. I had a father — a real father. That was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me in my young life.”
Hank Holley, himself a pastor, said he watched his father’s transformation from a stern military man into the tender, compassionate one that the attendees knew. He said his father instilled values of obedience, hard work and honor into him. He recounted stories of college-age clashes with his father, before he ultimately followed in his footsteps, working for five years with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
The past year has given him a year to reflect, Hank Holley said.
“C.S. Lewis said, ‘Grief is the price we pay for loving someone,’” Hank Holley said. “And that’s so true. If you have grief in your heart today, it’s a measure of your love for Henry Holley. I loved him, he made me into the man I am today, I praise God for his life and his legacy, and our memories are treasures forever.”
Tom Phillips, a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association colleague, said that Graham “trusted … Henry Holley. And rightly so. He would not fail.”
That trust was so strong, Phillips said, that Graham placed his son Franklin, now the president of BGEA, under the tutelage of Holley.
At the service’s close, a Marine bugler played taps from the sanctuary balcony. That was followed by another bugler, who ended on a more upbeat note, playing reveille.
Giving the benediction, Wright urged those in attendance to live as Holley did.
“You can be extra, special blessed by Henry today, if you’ll entrust your life to Jesus,” Wright said. “I assure you he doesn’t want any of us to miss what he’s realizing now.”