Throughout the six decades of Billy Graham's career, his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, served as the only true constant in his life other than his faith.

Despite long separations when Graham was on the road preaching, Ruth, who died Thursday at age 87, remained his bedrock, often speaking up to offer advice, yet just as often staying silent so that he could focus on his mission.

"There would have been no Billy Graham … had it not been for Ruth," said the late T.W. Wilson, a key member of Graham's staff, in A Prophet With Honor, William Martin's biography of the evangelist.

Graham was the first to acknowledge his wife's importance. "Your counsel, advice, encouragement and prayer have been my mainstay and at times I have almost clung to you in my weakness, in hours of obsession, problems and difficulties," he wrote in a 1963 letter to Ruth from Los Angeles, according to Patricia Cornwell's biography, Ruth, A Portrait.

In a statement issued Thursday, Graham, 88, praised his wife as his "life partner" and said "we were called as a team."

"No one else could have borne the load that she carried. She was a vital and integral part of our ministry, and my work through the years would have been impossible without her encouragement and support," he said.

On the surface, Ruth perhaps seemed a stereotypical preacher's wife: She stayed home in North Carolina to raise their five children and kept herself — and her personal needs — out of the spotlight. Her independence in the domestic arena allowed Graham a certain freedom from family responsibilities and granted him the ability to travel widely on his many crusades.

"The self-abnegation she learned in childhood probably prepared her for the role she played in [Graham's] life," said ...

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