CHRIS O'MEARA / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
MONTREAT, N.C. - Ruth Graham, who surrendered dreams of missionary work in Tibet to marry a suitor who became the world's most renowned evangelist, died yesterday. She was 87.
Mrs. Graham died 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," Billy Graham said. "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," he said. "I will miss her terribly, and look forward even more to the day I can join her in heaven."
Mrs. 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 - and underwent treatment for pneumonia two weeks ago.
A public memorial service is scheduled for tomorrow at the Montreat Conference Center. A private interment service will be held Sunday in Charlotte.
As Mrs. Billy Graham, Ruth Graham could lay claim to being the first lady of evangelical Protestantism, but she neither exploited that unique status nor lusted for the limelight.
Behind the scenes, however, she was considered her husband's closest confidante during his spectacular global career.
"She would help my father prepare his messages, listening with an attentive ear, and if she saw something that wasn't right or heard something that she felt wasn't as strong as it could be, she was a voice to strengthen this or eliminate that," said her son, Franklin, who is now the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Mrs. Graham's father, L. Nelson Bell, a missionary doctor, headed the Presbyterian hospital in Qingjiang, China. Mrs. Graham grew up there.
Despite her reluctance to be a public personality herself, Mrs. Graham met many of the powerful and famous through her husband - who was a spiritual adviser to presidents for decades. President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush called her a "remarkable woman of faith."
She met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois.
Billy Graham courted her, managing to coax her away from the foreign missions calling and into marriage after both graduated in 1943.
Though the wife of a famous Baptist minister, the independent-minded Mrs. Graham declined to undergo baptism by immersion and remained a loyal, lifelong Presbyterian. When in Montreat, a town built around a Presbyterian conference center, Billy Graham would attend the local Presbyterian church, where his wife often taught the college-age Sunday School class.
Mrs. Graham was the author or co-author of 14 books, including collections of poetry and the autobiographical scrapbook Footprints of a Pilgrim.