MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) On a recent visit to Ruth and Billy Graham’s beloved home in the western North Carolina mountains, her local pastor recalled, the world’s most renowned evangelist fumbled the words to the 23rd Psalm – one of his wife’s favorites.
As she had so many times before, Ruth Graham quickly corrected her husband.
It was yet another little reminder of the role Ruth Graham played as her husband’s closest confidant, the Rev. Richard White said. The first lady of evangelical Protestantism, she undoubtedly was an equal partner in a ministry that Billy Graham carried to presidents and peasants alike during a spectacular global career that placed him in the pulpit before more than 210 million people.
“She had the ability to move among presidents and leaders, but then turn right around and clean the oven of a widow,” White said.
Former President George H.W. Bush remembered her as “a wonderful, kind and wise woman who brightened all our lives.”
Nancy Reagan described her as a friend to her and late President Reagan and an extraordinarily caring woman who was devoted to her family. “I admired the fact that she also found the time to care about other children and those less fortunate through her work as an author, poet and philanthropist,” she said. “I know Billy’s heart will be broken with this loss.”
A daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who surrendered dreams of such work in Tibet after meeting Billy Graham, Ruth Graham died Thursday at her home, surrounded by her husband and their five children. She was 87.
“Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team,” Billy Graham said in a statement. “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. 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 Graham had been bedridden for months with degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck – the result of a serious fall from a tree in 1974 while fixing a swing for grandchildren. She underwent treatment for pneumonia two weeks ago. At her request, and in consultation with her family, she had stopped receiving nutrients through a feeding tube for the last few days, said family spokesman Larry Ross.
The family has planned a public memorial service for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Montreat Conference Center. A private interment service will be held the next day in Charlotte.
Ruth Graham grew up in China, where her father, L. Nelson Bell, headed the Presbyterian hospital in Qingjiang. She spent three high school years in what’s now North Korea.
She met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he managed to coax her away from the foreign missions calling and into marriage after they graduated in 1943. In 1945, after a brief stint pastoring a suburban Chicago congregation, he became a roving speaker for the fledgling Youth for Christ organization.
Ruth Graham moved the couple into her parents’ home in Montreat, where they had relocated after fleeing wartime China, and they later bought their own home across the street before moving into Little Piney Cove. It was a comfortably rustic mountainside home she designed using logs from abandoned cabins, and became Billy’s retreat between evangelistic forays.