By Cathy Lynn Grossman
Ruth Bell Graham, who gave her husband, Billy Graham, the freedom to roam the world and become its best-known evangelist while she reared their five children, died Thursday, four days after her 87th birthday.
Her family was at her bedside in the Montreat, N.C., mountain-top log cabin homestead she designed herself 62 years ago.
"My wife Ruth was the person to whom I would go for spiritual guidance," Billy said. "She was the only one in whom I completely confided. She was a great student of the Word of God. Her life was ruled by the Bible more than any individual I have ever known. When it comes to spiritual things, my wife has had the greatest influence on my ministry — she was the greatest Christian I ever knew."
Throughout her last years, bedridden with painful degenerative osteoarthritis in her spine, her prayer was never for herself. It was, "God's will be done and God's name glorified," she told USA TODAY in 2005.
Ruth Graham wrote more than a dozen Christian inspirational books and shared with Billy in receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 1996 for their contributions "to morality, racial equality, family and religion."
Yet she may have been best known as the spine of America's most famous Christian family, a woman who was feisty, energetic (her back injuries began when she fell 20 feet from a tree while testing a rope swing for her grandchildren) and utterly faithful to Jesus and to Billy.
"I once saw a PBS special on Mom that never mentioned Jesus. It captured her personality but missed who she truly is. If you don't mention Jesus, you're not true to her," said Anne Graham Lotz, one of her three daughters, "I think she may have been even stronger on the inside than my daddy."
Ruth's children will speak at her funeral, which will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Anderson Auditorium in Montreat, N.C. Burial will be a private ceremony on Sunday at the Billy Graham Library.
Ruth Bell, born in China to missionary parents, educated in a spartan Christian boarding school in what is now North Korea, met the lanky young Billy when both were students at Wheaton College. They married in 1943, after graduation.
On Wednesday, as she lapsed into a coma, Billy Graham, 88 and in frail health himself, called her his "soul mate and best friend." Like his late friend Johnny Cash, who died within months of his wife, June Carter Cash, Graham told his long-time spokesman A. Larry Ross that he couldn't imagine living without Ruth.
And he told his older son he wished they "could both go together," said Franklin Graham, Billy's successor at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
"God gave Billy Graham a wife who freed him up, shouldered everything so he could stay focused for work or even play golf. We children were like add-ons to his life. Yet, my mother never showed any resentment or even grief. She so loved him and she led us in how to accept his life," said Lotz, an author and Bible teacher.
In 2005, when Billy was no longer able to carry on his evangelistic crusades, he retired to Ruth's bedside at last in the cabin she called "Piney Cove." They would watch her favorite movie romances and musicals. She died knowing every line of Les Miserables, said Lotz.
"He would just sit and stare at her. It even made her a little uncomfortable but you could see she loved it, see the tenderness in her sparkling eyes," Lotz said.
There was a spark of fire in Ruth's eyes as well.
"She loved excitement," said Lotz, recalling how her mother once went hang gliding, how she tried to learn to ride a motorcycle, "but she didn't learn how to brake. She drove straight into a lake and got fished out by a trucker."
Last winter, Ruth ignited a family controversy over where she and Billy would be buried. Franklin Graham designed a burial spot, a landscaped prayer garden with piped in inspirational music, for them at the $27 million Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C, which opened to the public June 5, but Ruth preferred the graves be placed in the bucolic quiet of the Cove, the evangelism training center she and Billy created in Asheville, N.C., in 1988.
However, it was announced this week that Ruth and Billy together signed an agreement in March to be buried at the library with its evangelistic outreach to visitors so they would be "able to honor the Lord in death as in life. They kept the decision prayerful and private until now," said longtime family spokesman A. Larry Ross.
Franklin Graham attributes his own boldness to his mother, who once locked him, her incorrigible older son, in the car trunk for tormenting his three sisters. "I inherited mom's personality, to my favor. She's strong. She doesn't back down an inch," he said.
Her belief in redemption through faith in Jesus was boundless. When Franklin later outgrew his prodigal youth and was ordained in 1982, Ruth Graham told the assembly the ceremony at Grace Community Church in Tempe, Ariz.: "Nobody's hopeless. I mean it — nobody."
Neither did she fear death. She once mused to Decision, one of the magazines her husband founded, "I wonder if (God's) excited when one of his children is coming home — it's not a stranger coming home, it's a loved child."
Graham died at 5:05 p.m. at her home at Little Piney Cove, surrounded by her husband and all five of their children, said a statement released by Larry Ross, Billy Graham's spokesman.
"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," Mr. Graham said of his life-long marriage and ministry partner. "No one else could have borne the load that she carried. She was a vital and integral part of our ministry, and my work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support.
"I am so grateful to the Lord that He gave me Ruth, and especially for these last few years we've had in the mountains together," Mr. Graham continued. "We've rekindled the romance of our youth, and my love for her continued to grow deeper every day. I will miss her terribly, and look forward even more to the day I can join her in Heaven."
Ruth's gravesite at the Library will be open to the public on Monday. The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association General Fund.