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For years, Billy Graham closed his weekly broadcasts by encouraging listeners to write to "Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota."

But Minneapolis provided more than a mailing address for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association offices, housed downtown for 50 years. Minnesota was the launchpad for his future national and global ministry, say local religious leaders, and the place where his legacy lives particularly strong today.

"There's generations of people who look to him as a role model," said the Rev. Nick Hall of Minneapolis, who traveled with the national Billy Graham crusade teams late in the evangelist's career. "A lot of churches have become about politics, about social issues. Billy Graham had people focus on the message that mattered."

Graham's footprint in Minnesota started in 1948, when he began a four-year tenure as president at Northwestern Bible College, now the University of Northwestern in Roseville. During his stay, the school launched what was then a rare Christian radio station, KTIS. The station evolved into Northwestern Media, which now includes 18 radio stations in six states, said Jason Sharp, the group's senior vice president.

After Graham moved back to his native North Carolina in 1952, his visibility continued to explode on the national stage. Former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie remembers Graham speaking at National Prayer Breakfasts in Washington, D.C., where he stood out as a "humble, persuasive man."

Quie, chairman of Graham's 1996 crusade at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, said Graham won some unexpected followers. He recalled a photographer who had been dutifully taking pictures at the Metrodome. When Graham called for folks to come forward and receive Jesus, the photographer set down his camera and headed to the stage. "A lot of those kind of things happened," he said, laughing.

The Rev. Rob Ketterling was among the tiniest converts. He was 6 in 1973 when he responded to Graham's altar call at the State Fairgrounds. For 40 years, he's proudly kept a certificate he received for completing a Graham study course for kids.

Today Ketterling heads one of Minnesota's largest churches, River Valley Church, with eight campuses. Graham inspired him to think big. Said Ketterling: "It's [an] extension of Billy Graham."

Another significant Minnesota legacy was the 1965 creation of an umbrella organization for evangelical Christians, said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, formerly known as the Greater Minnesota Association of Evangelicals. It is one of a handful of such organizations in the nation, he said.

"He brought together Christians from across denominations here," said Nelson.

When Nelson looks at Graham's early days in Minnesota, he sees a direct line to his rise as a global superstar.

"Minnesota was the launching point," he said.

While tributes to Graham are in the works, most of his followers are simply mourning an irreplaceable leader. "He has been the North Star for a generation," said Hall. "When you lost your way, you always had Billy Graham." 612-673-4511 612-673-7768