Billy Graham says his wife Ruth “had a great reception in heaven”

Published 10:09 pm Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ruth Graham retained her beauty even in death and surely “had a great reception in heaven,” an ailing Billy Graham told a packed auditorium of mourners who gathered Saturday to remember his beloved wife.

“I wish you could look in that casket because she’s so beautiful,” said Graham, clinging to his walker. “She was a wonderful woman.”

Ruth Graham died Thursday at age 87 following a lengthy illness. Her husband’s closest confidant, she was remembered as a spiritual stalwart and modest mentor who provided a solid foundation — both biblically and geographically — for her globe-trotting husband.

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“The mama that we saw at home was the mama that the world saw,” said her son, Franklin, who is now the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He recalled his mother’s headstrong and quirky nature, telling the crowd about the time she overcame a locked bedroom door by crawling on the roof, throwing a cup of cold water through his window to wake him.

“I thank you mama for your example, for your love, for your wit, for your humor, for your craziness,” he said. “I love you for all of it and I’m going to miss you terribly.”

Billy Graham, who is 88 and is largely confined to the couple’s home in Montreat by several ailments, wasn’t expected to speak Saturday. But the world’s most renowned evangelist, who preached to more than 210 million people during his six-decade career, surprised the crowd with his words, perhaps spurred by the sight of his 19 grandchildren.

“God bless all these grandchildren. Some of them I haven’t seen in a long time. Some of them I’ve never seen,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience. “Lots of love to everyone, and thank you.”

He wiped a tear away a before leaving the auditorium. Family spokesman Larry Ross said later that “the sense of loss is beginning to settle in on him.” Family members will hold a private burial ceremony Sunday at the new Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.

Born in 1920 to medical missionaries in China, and after spending some of her high school years in what is now North Korea, Ruth Graham vowed to never marry and dreamed of working as a missionary in Tibet.

That changed after she met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois. They were married in 1943 at Montreat Presbyterian Church, the same church she attended for the rest of her life.

As Billy Graham took his crusades and traveling ministry around the country and the world, Ruth Graham usually remained in the small North Carolina mountain town of Montreat, raising their five children while writing poetry, books and counseling college-age youth.

Her sister, Rosa Montgomery, said Graham had charged ahead with her spiritual mindset even as a young girl — once praying that God would soon make her a martyr. She was a devout and lifelong Presbyterian, declining to undergo baptism by immersion even though she was married to a famous Baptist preacher.

“I asked Ruth a few weeks ago, ’Do you remember when you first met Lord Jesus?”’ Montgomery said. “And she said, ’I cannot remember ever not knowing him.”’

George Beverly Shea, who led the music at Billy Graham’s crusades for several decades, performed at the Graham memorial, singing “In Tenderness He Sought Me” — a Ruth Graham favorite that he sang at her bedside soon before her death.

Graham was bedridden for months with degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck, and fell into a coma on Wednesday following a recent bout with pneumonia. A spokesman said she died peacefully with her husband and all five of her children at her bedside.

“Though our hearts are heavy with loss, we dare rejoice, for Ruth is home with you,” said Rev. Richard White, Graham’s pastor at Montreat Presbyterian. “Her sorrows are ended.”

Her simple coffin, adorned with flowers, was chosen after son Franklin noticed inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary building the caskets for themselves and others who could not afford to purchase regular caskets.

Among those attending the service were North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole; Lynda Johnson Robb, the daughter of the late President Lyndon Johnson; Steve Case, co-founder of AOL; Debbie Smith, wife of Christian music artist Michael W. Smith; and actress Andie MacDowell.

Before the service, a handful of mourners watched a procession that brought it from Asheville to Montreat for Saturday’s memorial. Ruth Gleeson, 56, praised Ruth Graham as a “partner rather than a shadow of Billy Graham.”

“There is so much scandal in religion — particularly in the evangelical realm,” said Gleeson, of nearby Black Mountain. “For her, it was never about the ego. It was always about God. That’s really a rarity, and we have to honor that.”