Billy Graham's wife, Ruth, dies

Ruth Bell Graham, a humble missionary's daughter who became the wife of the world's foremost evangelist yet shined outside his shadow in her own right, died at 5:05 p.m. Thursday at home in Montreat in the N.C. mountains.

Graham was 87 when she died after several years of declining health spent mostly at the home she shared with her husband, evangelist Billy Graham.

Early plans called for a public memorial service in Montreat, then a private burial in Charlotte attended by family only.

"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," Graham said in a statement Thursday. "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."

Graham announced this week that he and Ruth have decided to buried side by side on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

Ruth Graham is survived by her husband, five children and 19 grandchildren. Describing her as a loyal wife, mother and grandmother doesn't embrace the essence of a creative, courageous woman.

She wrote poetry, evangelized for Christ to millions worldwide over the years and raised five children while Billy Graham was off preaching to the world. She was a constant counsel in his life, steering him away from partisan politics and balancing his natural-born seriousness with humor.

In enduring with quiet grace the pain brought on by several hip-replacement procedures and other ailments late in life, Ruth Graham inspired her family as she inspired others.

"My father would not have been what he is today if it wasn't for my mother," said son Franklin, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte. "She stood strong for what was biblically correct and accurate. 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. Every person needs that kind of input in their life, and she was that to my father."

Maintaining a private life

Ruth Graham's ill health and preference for privacy kept her out of the public eye for years.

At one of her last public appearances -- a 2000 benefit dinner in Asheville marking her 80th birthday -- best-selling mystery writer and family friend Patricia Cornwell put her life into perspective.

"Her legacy is that she profoundly touched people's lives," said Cornwell, who befriended the Grahams as a child in Montreat and later wrote a biography of Ruth Graham.

Return to China

Ruth McCue Bell was born on June 10, 1920, in a two-story gray brick house in Quingjang, China -- her parents were Presbyterian medical missionaries to China.

Her father, Dr. Nelson Bell, gave up a promising career as a baseball pitcher to become a doctor and move to China as chief surgeon for the hospital in Huaiyin for 25 years. Her mother, Virginia, tutored her in their home.

On a 1988 visit to the little town where she spent her first 17 years, Ruth Graham recalled the constant conflict between bandits and warlords, and how missionaries were seen as the enemy by some.

She reminisced about growing up there -- speaking English and Chinese, having her father read to her at night, even looking back fondly on the weekly bath in an old tin tub.

She returned to the United States in 1941 to attend Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian institution near Chicago. One date with a tall, thin farmer's boy from Charlotte turned her head and changed her life.

Struggles in early days

Billy and Ruth Graham were married on Aug. 13, 1943, at Montreat Presbyterian Church, in the town where her parents had retired. With the $75 he saved for the honeymoon, they traveled to nearby Blowing Rock.

Their union began a partnership that endured worldwide evangelism, adulation, politics and, perhaps most challenging of all, distance.

From his first days traveling with Youth for Christ, the Grahams were comfortable with their roles. He would crisscross the world for Christ; she'd remain at home in Montreat, raising what grew to be a family of five children -- Virginia, Anne, Ruth, Franklin and Ned.

A policy on politics

It was Ruth Graham who counseled her husband to steer clear of politics so as not to narrow his ministry.

During the Democratic National Convention in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sought Graham's advice on whom he might choose as a running mate.

Before Graham could answer, Ruth Graham kicked him under the table and said, "You are supposed to limit your advice to moral and spiritual issues and stay out of politics."