One of the great pleasures of my life was knowing and working with Ruth Bell Graham for more than 20 years.
When I first meet authors with whom I may work, I always ask them to name their favorite book. It’s a test to see a little bit of the character of the author. When I asked Ruth on our first meeting, 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 of me than of her. From that moment on we became fast friends.
Over the years I served Ruth as 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, and showed interest, in the mundane details of my life.
Besides my time with her, I’ve spent weeks and months combing through her writings and poetry, changing and rechanging her edits. She could never leave well-enough alone. One week she would add a comma to a poem only to take it off a week later. Without fail, just days after a book was published, I would receive a copy of the book from Ruth marked up with changes for the next printing.
I’ve also 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 as I went through boxes. She only asked that I not look through one particular box. I can’t say I wasn’t sorely tempted to peak because they were love letters from Ruth to Billy and from Billy to Ruth. But 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.
I’ve also learned more from her than anyone else.
My first lesson in working with numerous authors is that once put on a pedestal, about the only way off is to fall. Ruth showed that she could climb down and come along-side those of us down below. She was Christ-like in her ability not to be swayed by fame and public perceptions. She was truly “no respecter of persons.” She offered the same hospitality (sometimes to the utter horror of her staff) to anyone who knocked on the entrance to her home, whether it was the President of the United States and his wife, or someone who scaled the fence and arrived disheveled and seemingly off his meds.
Her often hilarious take on life was never at the expense of someone else. I learned from Ruth that the best humor never made fun of others. Her humor was self-deprecating and according to her, the material was endless. Making fun of herself also served the purpose of making her more accessible to those of us who also, often unintentionally, are the butt of our own jokes.
Putting her 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 and would be better forgotten. 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 Chistlike was her compassion. She would give someone the dress off her back. In fact, she did. I heard a story about an African pastor at a world evangelism conference who 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 take to his spouse. To me, it seemed too good of a story to believe and Ruth, of course, would not verify it. I finally tracked down an eyewitness to the scene who verified it so I could share it with the world.
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 whom she only knew from their books). Her ability to retain the knowledge she gained from reading seemed limitless. And 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. And 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.
There is much more that I could say about Ruth, but the truth is, it would take several volumes. Suffice it to say, whenever 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.
— Tuesday June 19, 2007