The passing of Billy Graham's life partner and closest confidante on Thursday has drawn attention to the woman behind a man considered the greatest evangelist in history.
"[S]he's an incredible woman," said Anne Graham Lotz, second daughter of the Grahams, in an interview with CNN last fall. "You wouldn't have Billy Graham without Ruth Graham, and I know that. He knows that, too."
Billy Graham and then Ruth Bell, daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries in China, had met when they were students at Wheaton College. Ruth was majoring in Bible and was active in the Foreign Missions Fellowship and Scripture Distribution Society. Graham was already an ordained Baptist minister at that time and he fell in love with Ruth "right that minute" they met, he said.
The feeling was mutual.
"When I got home, I was praying ... 'God, if you let me marry that man, it would be the greatest honor I could ever have,'" she told ABC news on occasion of the Grahams' 50th wedding anniversary in 1993.
They married right out of college.
As Billy Graham's wife, Ruth served as his anchor as the evangelist rose to fame and faced many temptations of pride and power.
Daughter Ruth Graham recalled, "Mr. Johnson (former U.S. president) was asking him (Billy) for advice, some sort of political advice. My mother kicked him under the table. And my daddy, being my father, said why did you kick me under the table? And Mr. Johnson looked at Daddy and said, Billy, she's right. You stick to preaching and I'll stick to politicking."
After more than six decades of marriage, Billy and Ruth Graham continued to share a love that grew deeper each day.
"Ruth is my soul mate and best friend, and I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side," said Billy Graham. "I am more in love with her today than when we first met over 65 years ago as students at Wheaton College."
The Grahams' marriage was the kind a Chinese writer had spoke about, which Ruth recalled in her earlier interview with ABC. "In the West (America), marriage starts at a boil and gradually cools off. In the East, it starts cool and gradually reaches a boil. And there's something to be said for that," she said.
To the world-renowned evangelist, she was also his anchor of faith.
"Many reporters asked me who is the greatest Christian I have ever known," Graham once said at a public appearance. "I always answer Ruth."
Her faith and devotion to God was what drew Billy Graham to her and what kept his ministry alive. "Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," Billy 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."
"Strong, steady, and dauntless, Ruth Bell Graham was the glue that held the many of the parts of their lives together," according to a statement from Wheaton College. "Like her husband, Ruth loved the Scriptures and the Christ of which they speak."
At the dedication of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., on May 31, the evangelist paid a tribute to his wife who was too ill to attend.
"I miss terribly, today, my wife Ruth. I want to honor her and tell you how much I love her and tell you what a wonderful woman she has been. More than me, she deserves to be here today," he said.
"Ruth's marriage to her husband Billy was a true and loving partnership," said President Bush in a statement Thursday. "As the wife of the world's most beloved evangelist, she inspired people around the world with her humor, intelligence, elegance, and kindness. Laura and I offer our prayers and condolences to Billy and the Graham family."
Other tributes are continuing to flow in from family, friends and the rest of the nation.
"I have admired her all my life, and particularly as a pastor's wife, there was a great deal to glean from how she supported her husband's ministry," said Kay Warren, wife of Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church. "She lived a life of servanthood, and in doing so was a leader and a role model to so many others. Rick and I extend our deepest sympathies to the entire Graham family as they mourn the passing of their wife and mother."
"We appreciate what Billy Graham has done in the world and what Ruth has done supporting her husband in every way," said neighbor Katherine Currie-Neil. The Grahams have lived in Montreat, N.C., a town of about 600 people, ever since their marriage. "And we try to respect their position as world leaders but also as Christian leaders. And we share their Christian values, and we appreciate the fact that they are here," Currie-Neil added.
About 180 members of the Graham and Bell families are expected to arrive in Montreat on Friday for a family dinner, according to News 14 Carolina. A public funeral service honoring Ruth Graham is scheduled for Saturday in Montreat. A private, family-only, interment service will be held the following day at her final resting place in the Prayer Garden on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library.
Ruth fell into a coma Wednesday morning. She was no longer receiving nutrients through a feeding tube and had been experiencing episodes of dropping blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat, according to a statement. In recent weeks, she had asked that the tube providing her with food and fluids be removed. She died at the age of 87 in her Montreat home at 5:05 p.m. on Thursday.
While Billy Graham looks forward "even more" to the day he can join her in Heaven, the evangelist is currently doing well despite the loss, according to family spokesman Larry Ross.
"Though Mr. Graham is heavy of heart, he rested well through the evening and he's been buoyed by the presence of his family," Ross said. "While he's grieving the loss, obviously, he's at peace with the knowledge of what he's faithfully preached for more than six decades.
"He's confident of his wife's faith in Christ and together their hope in Heaven and the fact that they're going to be reunited one day in Heaven."