MONTREAT, N.C. (AP) _ On a recent visit to Ruth and Billy Graham's beloved home in the western North Carolina mountains, her local pastor recalled, the world's most renowned evangelist fumbled the words to the 23rd Psalm _ one of his wife's favorites.
As she had so many times before, Ruth Graham quickly corrected her husband.
It was yet another little reminder of the role Ruth Graham played as her husband's closest confidant, the Rev. Richard White said. The first lady of evangelical Protestantism, she undoubtedly was an equal partner in a ministry that Billy Graham carried to presidents and peasants alike during a spectacular global career that placed him in the pulpit before more than 210 million people.
``She had the ability to move among presidents and leaders, but then turn right around and clean the oven of a widow,'' White said.
A daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who surrendered dreams of such work in Tibet after meeting Billy Graham, Ruth Graham died Thursday at her home, surrounded by her husband and all five of their children. She was 87.
``Whenever I was asked to name the finest Christian I ever met, I always replied, 'My wife, Ruth.''' Billy Graham said in a statement released Friday. ``She was a spiritual giant, whose unparalleled knowledge of the Bible and commitment to prayer were a challenge and inspiration to everyone who knew her.''
``In her last days she talked repeatedly of heaven, and although I will miss her more than I can possibly say, I rejoice that some day soon we will be reunited in the presence of the Lord she loved and served so faithfully.''
Former President George H.W. Bush remembered her Friday as ``a wonderful, kind and wise woman who brightened all our lives.''
Nancy Reagan described her as a friend to her and late President Reagan and an extraordinarily caring woman who was devoted to her family. ``I admired the fact that she also found the time to care about other children and those less fortunate through her work as an author, poet and philanthropist,'' she said. ``I know Billy's heart will be broken with this loss.''
Ruth Graham had been bedridden for months with degenerative osteoarthritis of the back and neck _ the result of a serious fall from a tree in 1974 while fixing a swing for grandchildren _ and underwent treatment for pneumonia two weeks ago. At her request, and in consultation with her family, she had stopped receiving nutrients through a feeding tube for the last few days, said family spokesman Larry Ross.
The couple's five children will speak at a public memorial service scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Montreat Conference Center, but Billy Graham will not. A private interment service will be held the next day in Charlotte.
Ruth Graham grew up in China, where her father, L. Nelson Bell, headed the Presbyterian hospital in Qingjiang, and she spent three high school years in what's now North Korea.
She met Billy Graham at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he managed to coax her away from the foreign missions calling and into marriage after both graduated in 1943. In 1945, after a brief stint pastoring a suburban Chicago congregation, he became a roving speaker for the fledgling Youth for Christ organization.
Ruth Graham moved the couple into her parents' home in Montreat, where they had relocated after fleeing wartime China, and they later bought their own home across the street before moving into Little Piney Cove. It was a comfortably rustic mountainside home she designed using logs from abandoned cabins, and became Billy's retreat between evangelistic forays.
``My father would not have been what he is today if it wasn't for my mother,'' said her son, Franklin, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelist Association.
``She stood strong for what was biblically correct and accurate. She would help my father prepare his messages, listening with an attentive ear, and if she saw something that wasn't right or heard something that she felt wasn't as strong as it could be, she was a voice to strengthen this or eliminate that. Every person needs that kind of input in their life, and she was that to my father.''
Though the wife of a famous Baptist minister, Ruth Graham declined to undergo baptism by immersion and remained a lifelong Presbyterian. When in Montreat, a town built around a Presbyterian conference center, Billy Graham would attend the Presbyterian church where his wife often taught the college-age Sunday School class.
Due to her husband's travels, she bore major responsibility for raising the couple's five children: Franklin (William Franklin III), Nelson, Virginia, Anne and Ruth. She endured her husband's frequent absences, but once remarked, ``I'd rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man.''
The author or co-author of 14 books, including collections of poetry and the autobiographical scrapbook ``Footprints of a Pilgrim,'' she helped establish the Ruth and Billy Graham Children's Health Center in Asheville and the Billy Graham Training Center near Montreat.