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Remembering Ruth

Thousands journey to North Carolina retreat center to celebrate "the glue that held many parts" of the Graham lives together


Remembering Ruth
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If the folks charged with planning the funeral of Mrs. Billy Graham miscalculated a bit on one or two logistical details, consider the difficulty of their assignment: Plan for a gathering of thousands, they were told-give or take a few thousand. The crowd will include some prominent people, both as hosts and as guests, so security will be an issue. The media might well swarm the place; but then again, the media might just ignore it. Summer thunderstorms are possible.

And oh, yes. No one knows exactly when all this will happen.

That's the nature of a VIP funeral. The guest list is a guess list-especially when the service is for an older person. Ruth Bell Graham's osteoarthritis had crippled her for many months; she was receiving nourishment via a feeding tube; then came word late in May that pneumonia was also taking its toll. The end seemed near-but "near" doesn't tell several hundred waiting volunteers exactly when they'll need to spring into quiet action, implementing months of painstaking preparation.

The preparation showed, loud and clear, even though the big public event was just 48 hours after Mrs. Graham's death-which itself came only four days after her 87th birthday. The hurried schedule was dictated by the heavy summer booking of the 2,000-seat Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina, just a few blocks from the Grahams' mountain home. The Saturday afternoon time slot was the only opening available amid summer camps and conferences. But it also proved a handy time for a full house, many gathering two and even three hours early just in case seats might be hard to come by. Three closed-circuit overflow facilities were ready, but not needed.

The long wait was just what many guests needed for a quiet time to chat with folks not seen for years. With an hour to go, presiding minister Richard White stepped up to test the sound system: "The Lord is my shepherd," he said a couple of times. "I shall not want." Glenn Wilcox, whose travel agency had coordinated Graham events all over the world for the last 40 years, found friends everywhere. Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College (where Ruth Bell and Billy Graham first met), had flown with his wife from Chicago that morning. "Strong, steady, and dauntless," Litfin said of Mrs. Graham. "She was the glue that held many of the parts of their lives together."

Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), senator to the Grahams and wife of former presidential candidate Bob Dole, came in not long before the service began, as did Graham friends as varied as author Joni Eareckson Tada, actress Andie MacDowell, televangelist Robert Schuller, and politician's wife Lynda Johnson Robb.

All this for the woman sometimes referred to as the "first lady of evangelical Protestantism in America." Born in China to missionary parents (her father, L. Nelson Bell, was also a notable surgeon, writer, churchman, and promising baseball player), as a girl, Ruth hated the thought of going off to boarding school in what is now North Korea-and actually prayed when she was 11 that she could die a martyr. "I prayed that she wouldn't," says her sister Rosa Montgomery, "and my prayers were more effective than hers."

By everyone's telling-including her husband Billy-she anchored the Graham family while he toured the world for his evangelistic crusades. Her intellect, wit, and personal presence would have allowed her center stage wherever she might have wanted to go. But her clear desire was to be home with her three daughters and two sons. And to make the Graham home a haven to many, including down-and-outers who sometimes wandered by.

A vignette of the legendary Graham hospitality waited on each of the 2,000 seats at the funeral: a bottle of water, a fan, and a complimentary copy of Ruth Graham's popular book of photos and poems, Sitting By My Laughing Fire.

A big part of the crowd, of course, included present and past staff members from the Grahams' offices, the Graham radio stations, the Cove conference center near Asheville, Graham headquarters in Charlotte 100 miles to the east, and the headquarters of Samaritan's Purse 80 miles north.

Hundreds wandered to the front of the big auditorium to pause next to the closed plywood coffin, one of two matching items fashioned by volunteer prisoners in Louisiana. "They tell me," said Robert Seybold of Charleston, W.Va., "that it cost only $200. And it's a whole lot more beautiful than the gaudy metal models." Seybold and his wife had gotten up at 4 that morning to make the five-hour drive to attend the service.

The service itself-both faithful and feisty-painted an accurate picture of the woman whose memory so many had come to honor. From a robust Doxology to the bagpipe-accompanied 23rd Psalm, and even with George Beverly Shea's solo in between, traditionalism was dominant. The audience loved the hearty storytelling from a variety of siblings and children; if Ruth's older sister Rosa went on a bit long, listeners didn't seem as worried as the schedulers were.

And if biblical evangelism was the steady theme of the Grahams' long lives, no message could have been more pertinent than the straightforward warning from the Grahams' pastor, Richard White: "If you leave here today thinking Ruth Graham was a great woman, then you will have missed the main point of her life. Ruth Graham knew herself to be a sinner who needed the grace of a great God."

As the service ended, the Grahams' five children, with their spouses, stationed themselves at the auditorium's several doors to greet visitors. And as they left, some remembered-as had WORLD writer and one-time Graham staffer Ed Plowman-Mrs. Graham's aversion in any big event to riding with her husband in the lead car. "He was often driven in limousines, especially in other countries," Plowman recalled, "usually accompanied by a church leader or two, an aide or two, and sometimes a state official. Ruth insisted on riding in the bus or van with the rest of the party. She didn't want to take up space in the car that could be used by a national leader or other VIP. Ruth enjoyed being with us common people."

On this particular Saturday, though, Ruth Bell Graham was in the lead car-a black Cadillac hearse on its way to the newly prepared gravesites at the recently dedicated Graham museum in Charlotte. This time, her famous husband was in the supporting role, a lonely passenger in the limousine that was just behind.

Woman of letters

When I asked Ruth Graham on our first meeting to name her favorite book, without hesitation she answered, "Men of the Covenant." Surprised, I responded, "Do you mean Alexander Smellie's book about the persecution of the Scottish Church?" She just smiled and I suddenly realized it was more a test for me than for her. We became fast friends.

Over the years I served as her book developer, editor, agent, and occasionally as the collator of her notes into rough chapters. We spent many hours talking books, poetry, theology, as well as details of her life. She also always asked about, and showed interest in, the mundane details of my life.

I spent many hours rummaging through her famous pack-rat attic looking for notes, photos, and other odds-and-ends. When it became difficult for her to climb the stairs, she would sit on the bottom step trumpeting instructions and asking for a play-by-play. She only asked that I not look through one particular box: the one containing love letters between Ruth and Billy. I never yielded to the temptation.

I realized, in the two days between her death and her funeral, that I knew Ruth Bell Graham better than I knew anyone else in my life. And I have also learned more from her than anyone else.

Her often hilarious take on life was never at the expense of someone else. Her humor was self-deprecating and according to her, the material was endless. Putting the car in forward instead of reverse and careening off a cliff into a tree would be something many of us would rather not be circulated. It was a story she delighted in and she insisted we tell in several books. In fact, today if you look down the cliff in front of the Graham house, you will see a stop sign attached to a tree at the bottom of the hill.

Also Christ-like was her compassion. She would give someone the dress off her back. In fact, she did. Once an African pastor at a world evangelism conference felt he could not return home without something for his wife. Ruth, hearing the distress in his voice, found something to change into and gave him the dress she was wearing to give to his spouse.

Ruth was the most well-read person I've ever met. Her knowledge was vast-biblical knowledge, Puritan writings, current non-fiction, and some popular fiction (Jan Karon and Patricia Cornwell were great friends, but so were C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald, men she only knew from their books). Although I tried hard to keep up with her reading, I never had her unique alchemy of turning knowledge into wisdom.

No one was as loyal in friendship as Ruth Graham. If you stopped being friends with Ruth, it was something you did, not her. The nearest thing to judgment I received from her was when my hair was down to my shoulders. Instead of suggesting I get a haircut, she gave me some of her scrunchies to pull it back.

When I study the attributes and character of Jesus, it is Ruth that illustrates His love, faith, meekness, compassion, forgiveness, peace, gentleness, and goodness. One of my great regrets will be never finishing our last book, How to Marry a Preacher and Remain a Christian. The book would have been funny, compassionate, erudite, loving toward her husband, and practical in her advice to spouses of ministers and evangelists. It would have been just like the Ruth I knew and loved. I will miss her dearly.

-Stephen Griffith is a book editor who worked with Ruth Graham for more than 20 years.


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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