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Published: Saturday, 6/23/2007

Ruth Graham's legacy: laughter, love, spirituality

Graham Graham
CHRIS O'MEARA / ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Ruth Graham Bell rarely gave interviews, but those who knew the Rev. Billy Graham's wife inevitably mentioned two notable traits: her faith and humor.

Mrs. Graham, who died June 14 at age 87, had been in frail health for several years, but despite her physical setbacks she continued to study and memorize the Bible.

"She has macular degeneration [eye disease] but typed up the Book of Psalms in large print and is nailing down Psalm 90," her daughter, Ruth Graham, told me in 2005. "A couple of months ago she said, 'Let's all say a memory verse before we go to bed!'•"

Ms. Graham said she wrote the 2005 book A Legacy of Love: Things I Learned from My Mother, because "my mother is a unique, special lady. I have a wonderful legacy and it's really too good to be hoarded."

Despite her husband's lengthy absences as he took his evangelistic crusades around the world, Mrs. Graham never complained about staying behind with five children, her daughter said.

"The advice she gave to me was, 'Make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes,'•" Ms. Graham said.

She had a keen sense of humor and a penchant for pranks.

Visitors to the Grahams' mountaintop home in Montreat, N.C., for example, were often startled by tiny eyes peering down at them from the ceiling. Those eyes belonged to toy hedgehogs that Mrs. Graham placed in the rafters as a prank, her daughter said.

Another writer who described Mrs. Graham's sense of humor was Jerry B. Jenkins.

The prolific author and co-writer, with Tim LaHaye, of the blockbuster Left Behind series, Mr. Jenkins spent time with Ruth and Billy Graham when he was assisting the evangelist on his memoir, Just As I Am.

"Ruth Graham is one of the funniest people I have ever met," Mr. Jenkins wrote in his book Writing for the Soul. "She once said: 'If a husband and a wife agree all the time, one of them is unnecessary.' Someone once asked if she had ever considered divorce. 'Never,' she said. 'Homicide, but never divorce.'•"

Mrs. Graham recalled for Mr. Jenkins a conversation she had with her husband as he was heading to the airport for a trip to Europe in the 1950s, when their home was being built.

"'How many fireplaces can I have?' she asked him.

"'No more than two,' Mr. Graham said.

"Upon his return, he found a beautiful home with five fireplaces. Ruth said, 'I thought you said no fewer than two.'

"When recounting this story for me," Mr. Jenkins wrote, "she winked and said, 'There comes a time to stop submitting and start outwitting.'•"

Mrs. Graham once kicked her husband under the table when she felt his conversation with President Lyndon Johnson was getting too political.

Her feistiness and strong faith were strengthened as a child growing up in a bandit-ridden area of China.

She was born June 10, 1920, in Qingjiang, Kiangsu, China, about 300 miles north of Shanghai. Her parents, L. Nelson and Virginia Leftwich Bell, were medical missionaries at the Qingjiang Presbyterian Hospital.

According to her daughter Ruth, there were many kidnappings in the region and victims were often tortured or killed. Mrs. Graham remembered seeing bomb-laden Japanese fighter planes passing overhead when Japan invaded China.

Mrs. Graham was 13 when she went away to boarding school in Pyongyang, Korea, and she made her first trip to the United States at age 7, when her parents were on furlough.

At 17, she began studying at Wheaton College, near Chicago, where she was introduced to a classmate whom other students had nicknamed "Preacher" - Billy Graham.

The two graduated in June, 1943, and were married that August. Mrs. Graham gave up her dream of becoming a missionary to Tibet in order to support her husband's ministry.

From 1945 to 1958, she gave birth to five children: daughters Virginia ("Gigi"), Anne, and Ruth, and sons Franklin, and Nelson Edman ("Ned").

Her contributions to Mr. Graham's career have been well-documented, but she also was an accomplished author and poet in her own right. Mr. Graham had described her as "the theologian in the family" and that she was "way over my head" when it came to her choice of reading material.

Mrs. Graham was the author of 14 books, starting with Our Christmas Story in 1959. A wordsmith with a keen eye, Mrs. Graham wrote an article for Decision magazine in 1970 that described what she considered to be a perfect epitaph.

"I saw a sign on a strip of highway once that I would like to have copied on my gravestone. It said, 'End of construction. Thank you for your patience.'"

David Yonke is The Blade's religion editor. Contact him at dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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