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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ruth Bell Graham, the ’First Lady’ of evangelism, passes away

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

MONTREAT, NORTH CAOLINA (ANS) -- Ruth Bell Graham, a medical 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. today 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.

News sources, including the Charlotte Observer, said early plans called for a public memorial service in Montreat, then a private burial in Charlotte attended by family only. Dates and times for a family-only interment ceremony and a public memorial service will be released when available. Billy Graham announced that he and Ruth have decided to buried side by side on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

Ruth Bell 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," says a report in the Charlotte observer newspaper.

Ruth Bell Graham 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, the newspaper said, adding: "And 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."

According to the newspaper, ill health prevented her from attending the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte two weeks ago, but at the event she was hailed for her spirit and courage. The library, which tells the story of how Charlotte's most famous son became a world-famous evangelist, includes an exhibit on her.

"More than me," said Dr. Billy graham, her husband of 63 years, "she deserves to be here today." 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 benefit dinner in Asheville marking her 80th birthday in 2000 -- 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.

"We live in a world where, if you're not touching lots and lots of people, you're not important. If everybody would do what Ruth has done, this would be a better place. She cared about her neighbor."

Ruth Graham put on a fancy gown and agreed to be fussed over by 300 loved ones and admirers that night in the Grand Ballroom of the Grove Park Inn for this reason: The $250-a-plate, black-tie dinner raised more than $2 million for the Ruth and Billy Graham Children's Health Center in Asheville, the newspaper reported.

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, the newspaper article said.

It goes on to say: "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."

According to the newspaper article, "A timid Billy Graham got up the nerve to take her to a Sunday afternoon production of Handel's 'Messiah' -- the first step of a romance."

"You could see Christ coming out of her face in the expression she had," Dr. Graham recalled, admitting that he didn't dare hold her hand on that first date.

In his autobiography, "Just As I Am" (HarperSan Francisco, $19.95), Billy Graham wrote of the letter from the love of his life, postmarked July 6, 1941, in which she accepted his marriage proposal. "After I went to bed," he wrote, "I switched my little lamp on and off all night, rereading that letter probably another dozen times."

The missionary's daughter was just as smitten, as she expressed in "Never Let It End: Poems of a Lifelong Love" (Baker, $12.99):

"I'd dreamt of shoulders broad and straight, one built to lead; I met you once and knew that you were all I need."

The newspaper report states that 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.

In "Footprints of a Pilgrim: The Life and Loves of Ruth Bell Graham" (Thomas Nelson), she reminisced about sleeping with Billy's tweed jacket during the nights he was off saving souls.

The newspaper article recounted the now familiar story told by various Grahams about how Ruth Graham 'had had it up to here' one day trying to discipline born-to-be-wild Franklin -- so she locked him in the trunk of her car as they went through the fast-food window in Asheville.

Franklin Graham, who now runs the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, recalled: "The waitress was shocked when she saw Mama open the trunk and hand me my food."

A father's absence was hard on everyone: Billy Graham recalls the time Franklin spotted his parents in bed and asked Ruth Graham, "Mama, who is that in bed with you?"

The newspaper article also tells the story about Ruth Bell Graham's legendary stoicism in the face of illness -- especially when compared with a husband who felt every ache and pain. Loved ones would joke that when he died, Billy would have carved on his tombstone, "I told you so." When Ruth died, her tombstone would declare, "Never felt better."

The Charlotte Observer also mentions Ruth Graham's books about sharing Christ which sold thousands of copies – 'One Wintry Night' (Baker, $18.99), an illustrated children's book, and 'Never Let It End,' whose cover features a portrait of the Grahams on their wedding day.

The newspaper also tells how Ruth Graham also shared her husband's platform -- sharing tea and conversation with kings and queens and answering reporters' questions before her husband's crusades invariably commanded a city's attention.

The article says: "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.

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

Also recounted in the Charlotte Observer is the account of how Rice University sociology professor William Martin of Houston, who chronicled Graham's life in the 1991 biography, "A Prophet With Honor," recalled Ruth Graham's response when someone suggested her husband run for president:

"She said, `I don't think the country's ready for a divorced president.' "

Most of all, said Martin, it was Ruth Graham who raised five children largely on her own, infusing in each of them the independent spirit that marked her life.

The newspaper says that those who knew her best will think first of her quiet courage when they remember Ruth Graham.

"Chronic back pain brought on by several hip-replacements left her in pain, then in a wheelchair or bed. Bacterial spinal meningitis in March 1996 nearly killed her. Out of the limelight in recent years, family and friends describe a wisp of a woman," the newspaper said. "Loved ones say, she rarely complained."

She simply soldiered on with resilience, according to biographer Martin.

Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz of Raleigh recalled the day in 2000 that her frail mother struggled to put on her jewelry and makeup to welcome Billy Graham home from his doctor's appointment at the Mayo Clinic.

Beyond all the acclaim that followed them all the days of their public life together, that is the picture of Billy and Ruth Graham their loved ones will cling to.

CNN quoting the Assocaited Press (AP )says that Ruth Graham surrendered dreams of missionary work in Tibet to marry a suitor who became the world's most renowned evangelist.

Graham died at 5:05 p.m. at her home at Little Piney Cove, surrounded by her husband and all their five children, according to 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 in a statement released to the media. "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 and 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, Larry Ross said.

The family plans a private interment ceremony and a public memorial service. Those arrangements had yet to be made on Thursday.

The CNN report said Ruth Graham was considered her husband's closest confidant during his spectacular global career -- one rivaled only by her father, L. Nelson Bell, until his death in 1973.

Bell, a missionary doctor, headed the Presbyterian hospital in Qingjiang, China, that had been founded by the father of author Pearl Buck. Ruth grew up there and spent three high school years in what's now North Korea.

"Her parents exercised a profound effect upon the development of her character and laid the foundations for who she was," said the couple's youngest daughter, also named Ruth.

"What she witnessed in her family home, she practiced for herself -- dependence on God in every circumstance, love for his word, concern for others above self, and an indomitable spirit displayed with a smile."

Ruth Graham met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois. He recalled in 1997 memoirs, "If I had not been smitten with love at first sight of Ruth Bell I would certainly have been the exception. Many of the men at Wheaton thought she was stunning."

Billy Graham courted her and managed to coax her away from the foreign missions calling and into marriage after both 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.

The CNN report says that from that point onward she had to endure her husband's frequent absences, remarking, "I'd rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man."

Ruth Graham moved the couple into her parents' home in Montreat, where they had relocated after fleeing wartime China. She stayed in western North Carolina mountain town the rest of her life.

The young couple later bought their own house across the street from the Bells. Then in 1956, needing protection from gawkers, the Grahams moved into Little Piney Cove, a comfortably rustic mountainside home she designed using logs from abandoned cabins. It became Billy's retreat between evangelistic forays.

Quoting the AP, CNN says that although she was the wife of a famous Baptist minister, the independent-minded Ruth 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.

Due to her husband's travels, she bore major responsibility for raising the couple's five children: Franklin (William Franklin III), Nelson, Virginia, Anne and Ruth.

Ruth Graham was the author or co-author of 14 books, including collections of poetry and the autobiographical scrapbook "Footprints of a Pilgrim."

In 1996, the Grahams were each awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for "outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy, and religion," the online report recalls.

Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell began her writing career with a Ruth Graham biography that depicted many deeds of personal charity. Cornwell said as a youth in Montreat she thought Ruth Graham "was the loveliest, kindest person ever born. I still do."

She helped establish the Ruth and Billy Graham Children's Health Center in Asheville, and the Billy Graham Training Center near Montreat.

The osteoarthritis that afflicted Ruth resulted from a serious fall from a tree in 1974 while rigging a slide for grandchildren.

It became clear this week her death was close, when Billy Graham said his wife was "close to going home to Heaven" after entering into a coma.

In a statement released by Larry Ross, Billy Graham's spokesman, Dr. Graham says: "Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team. 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 added: "Ruth is my soul mate and best friend, and I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side. I am more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College."

Ruth had degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck and was bedridden at their home in the mountains of western North Carolina.

** Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.

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