Ruth Bell Graham, The Soul Mate Of the Preacher

Ruth and Billy Graham on the Queen Mary in 1966. Ruth helped shape her famous preacher husband.
Ruth and Billy Graham on the Queen Mary in 1966. Ruth helped shape her famous preacher husband. (Pictorial Parade -- Getty Images)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

In the summer of 1941, Ruth McCue Bell, a 21-year-old college graduate with a razor-sharp mind, made a decision that today might seem, as they say in her adopted state of North Carolina, somewhat peculiar.

She planned to become a missionary in China, where she had spent her childhood. Then her good-looking preacher boyfriend asked her to marry him. "Woman was created to be a wife and mother," he told her.

Not I, she responded. But several agonizing weeks later she said yes, and she spent the rest of her life as a preacher's wife, sculpting and polishing the raw talent of the Rev. Billy Graham.

What a sign of those times, one might say. Or, how sad. The world will never know what else Ruth Graham, who as a wife and mother reared five children and wrote 14 books, could have accomplished had she not been Billy Graham's "helpmeet," as her friend June Carter Cash once described the wifely role.

Being a pastor's wife, particularly an evangelical Christian pastor's wife, is one of the hardest jobs there is. Not only are you expected to obey and serve your husband, you're supposed to like doing so, and on the occasions you don't, keep quiet about it. Close friends are hard to come by because there is so much you're not supposed to discuss.

But it's a mark of Ruth's inner steel and religious conviction that once she and Billy exchanged vows at the little Presbyterian church in Montreat, N.C., she never looked back, nor, as far as anyone could tell, regretted her decision. What might seem to many like oppression in fact set her free to shape a life that included, but by no means was limited to, a man she deeply loved.

Billy Graham biographer William Martin once said, "Ruth knows who she is, while Billy is always auditioning." Even women who would not have made her same life choice can envy her certitude.

It was that same unwavering belief in herself that propelled Ruth to help Billy stay true to his gift for oratory and witness. After Billy's wildly successful crusade in Los Angeles in 1949, an event that kicked him into evangelist stardom, Sam Goldwyn and other Hollywood pooh-bahs tried to talk him into making a movie. He declined after talking to Ruth, according to several friends. The same thing happened in 1954, according to sources formerly with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, when NBC offered Billy a large sum of money, reported to be close to $1 million, to go on TV opposite Arthur Godfrey on CBS. Later, as various Republicans urged him to try his hand at national political office, he said no in large part because of Ruth's advice.

When President Richard M. Nixon offered to make Billy ambassador to Israel, Billy turned it down. When Life magazine asked Billy to write an article endorsing Nixon, Billy, on Ruth's advice, declined. Ruth once said she believed Nixon's Watergate troubles stemmed from the fact that no one around him would tell him no.

"When anyone becomes so famous, so important, that no one dares to disagree, they're in a dangerous position," she said. "I've met husbands who wouldn't let their wives disagree with them and they invariably suffered for it."

"Ruth kept Billy both loved and honest," said Leighton Ford, an evangelist and Billy's brother-in-law.

She could be resolute in her desire for privacy, but she also had an uncanny ability to get people to talk about themselves. On a visit to meet her years ago, I failed to get her to talk about herself and ended up gabbing about myself and my family instead. Ruth surely had 15 things on her to-do list that morning but made it seem as if she had all day to listen.

Her base of operation was the log house she built in the early 1950s atop 200 acres of mountain land near Montreat in western North Carolina. While Billy Graham spent most of his life in hotel rooms, Ruth spent hers in a home that had the feel of an old sweater, with soft, worn couches, braided rugs, opened books, dozens of family photographs and lots of fireplaces.

A story is told about those fireplaces that says a lot about the way women of her day finagled to get their way. Billy was on his way to India as construction started on the house. Ruth wanted a lot of fireplaces and he told her to hold the number to two. A biography of Billy quotes her as saying, "As soon as he left, I told the workmen 'Build fireplaces! Build them faster than you ever have in your life. I want five before he gets back.'" She got five, and Billy didn't say a word.

She wasn't so successful in the last major effort she made before she died. She waged a quiet campaign to be buried in the mountains of North Carolina, near where her parents are buried. Her oldest son, Franklin, and, eventually, her husband had other plans. They decided that Ruth and Billy would be buried in Charlotte, 100 miles away.

During one meeting last December with Billy and a few others by her bedside, she called the Charlotte site "a tourist attraction" and "a circus." Minutes later the visitors filed out of her bedroom, passing under a blue wooden sign above the door frame that has been there for years.

The sign says, "Nobody knows the trouble I've been."

Oh, but they do. And lots of people -- women and men -- are applauding.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company