"Ruth was my life partner, and we were called by God as a team," the Rev. Billy Graham said in a statement released Thursday.
It was Ruth Graham who dissuaded her husband from launching a campaign for the U.S. presidency: She told him she would leave him if he quit his ministry. The American public would not accept a divorced man as president, she warned.
And it was she who took the lead in rearing their five children, supervised the construction of their mountain homestead -- Little Piney Cove in Montreat -- and otherwise anchored the family.
"I'm assuming home responsibilities," Graham explained to her husband early in their marriage, "to free you for your more important ones."
Long before Billy Graham's legendary 1957 crusade in New York -- the beginning of a journey that would take him to 185 countries and territories -- she understood that his calling would eclipse her own. The woman who once had dreams of becoming a missionary in Tibet surrendered them for her husband.
"If I marry Bill, I marry him with my eyes open," she wrote in her journal. "He will be increasingly burdened for lost souls and increasingly active in the Lord's work .... I will slip into the background.... In short, be a lost life. Lost in Bill's."
The couple married Aug. 13, 1943, and had five children. In addition to her husband, Graham's survivors include her children: Virginia, Anne, Ruth Bell, Franklin (William Franklin III), and Nelson Edman.
For Ruth Graham, life in the background did not mean a life of obscurity. As her husband's ministry grew and his fame spread, Graham felt the eyes of the world on her and the family. When country music star June Carter Cash sent her a mink coat as a gift, Graham explained that as the wife of an evangelist, she could not wear mink in public.
"She anguished over the importance of providing the children with a normal environment," according to "Ruth, A Portrait: The Story of Ruth Bell Graham" by Patricia Cornwell. "She fought the resentment that boiled to the surface when tourists invaded their property and their privacy, and she also knew that any unkindness on her part would not be forgiven."
Ruth Graham called the fame an "odd kind of cross to bear."
Raised as a Presbyterian, Graham had no experience in submitting to a husband's authority the way the evangelist, who was reared in a Southern Baptist family, expected.
Ruth Graham once was driving and hit the accelerator instead of the brake, sending her car crashing through a fence. Nobody was hurt, but in a phone call from California, Billy Graham demanded that she surrender her driver's license. Ruth argued with him, standing her ground, according to an account in the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times.
After a long moment of silence, Billy Graham said, "I don't recall reading in Scripture that Sarah ever talked to Abraham like this."
Ruth Graham retorted: "Well, I don't recall reading in Scripture that Abraham ever tried to take Sarah's camel away from her."
Graham was born Ruth McCue Bell in Jiangsu province, China, on June 10, 1920. From the start, Ruth, the second of five children, seemed destined for a life of Christian service. Though she witnessed and shared the hardships of her missionary parents, Dr. Nelson and Virginia Bell, Ruth concerned herself with spiritual matters and was drawn to the notion of helping others.
She spent three years of high school in Pyongyang, in what is now North Korea, then graduated from a school in Montreat while her parents were on a furlough from their mission work. When she was 17, Graham enrolled at Wheaton College in Illinois, where Billy Graham was a student. She had vowed never to marry, but after one date with her future husband, she prayed and told God it would be an honor to serve him as Billy Graham's wife.
For months at a time, he was away from home preaching. His absence meant Graham was mother and father to their children, a role that required much prayer.