Ruth Graham not only raised five children at her Montreat home, but flowers as well. Geraniums were among her favorites for their color, recalled her grandson, Will Graham.
"I didn't like them. They smelled and were sticky, but she loved them," Graham said.
But Ruth's favorite was the native jack-in-the-pulpit, a fitting flower for the wife of the world's most famous evangelist - the Rev. Billy Graham. "She loved preachers. She married one," Will Graham said.
Nine years after his grandmother's death, Will Graham and others gathered at the Chatlos Memorial Chapel and Visitor's Center at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. They dedicated a new landscape of native flowers and plants as Ruth's Prayer Garden to welcome the some 18,000 spiritual seekers and guests who visit the Chatlos Memorial Chapel annually.
The Grahams once thought of being buried on the woodlands beneath the high steeple of the rock-ribbed chapel that Ruth Graham helped design and decorate. She arranged six arched, clear glass windows on each side of the sanctuary so that visitors would always see outside. She asked that the floors be made of native pine and the chandeliers of cast iron from Asheville. And she kept asking for a higher steeple to tower above The Cove's hardwoods.
About 10 years ago, the couple decided their final resting place should be in Charlotte where Billy Graham was born and raised, and where the Billy Graham Library is located. Ruth Graham was laid to rest there after her death in 2007.
That decision to move the burial site actually protected the mission of the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove as a secluded retreat for Christian seminars and prayer. "The mountains are a hard place to find parking, and having their graves here would have forever changed the dynamics," said Will Graham, The Cove's executive director.
Will Graham remembers his grandparents as a prayerful couple. He has a lasting image of Billy by Ruth's bedside, holding her hand as they prayed. "They prayed for their children and for all their grandchildren by name. The great-grandchildren, they lumped together, there were so many of them," Will Graham said.
"My grandfather is just old, 97 and half," Will Graham said. "'Don't forget the half, he likes to say. He's earned it."
The evangelist who carried the Gospel around the globe has seen his world shrink to just a couple of rooms in his Montreat home, but he is at peace, according to his longtime executive assistant David Bruce, who attended the prayer garden dedication. With macular degeneration, Graham is unable to read these days, but likes having the Bible and newspapers including the Asheville Citizen-Times read to him each day.
The prayer garden honors the work of Ruth Graham as well, Bruce said. "Her life looms large in this place, and especially in this chapel. Both she and Billy wanted The Cove to be an extension of their own home. They wanted to welcome people here."
The Grahams had thought of opening a Christian training center somewhere in the mountains since the 1980s. They bought some 1,500 acres near Swannanoa along a mountainside reaching 4,000 feet.
Both Billy and Ruth Graham attended the dedication ceremony in a pouring rain in 1993. "My grandfather said this would be a mountain for prayer," Will Graham said.
The Billy Graham Training Center offers Christian seminars for adults year round and also leases out space to other like-minded church groups, said Eric Wilkes, The Cove's operations manager.
The Cove, which is part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is now headed by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son and Will's father.
More than 100 people attended the dedication ceremony Wednesday by invitation only. "I was honored to know Ruth as a longtime friend. She was a great part of our community and she loved Western North Carolina," said Glenn Wilcox, who attended the event. Wilcox is founder of Wilcox Travel and owner of the BB&T building scheduled for renovation as a downtown hotel.
Opening the prayer garden was a labor of love for staffers and longtime associates of the Graham family. Landscapers pulled in the favorite plants that Ruth Graham had loved, including azaleas and ferns, daylilies and tiger lilies, roses and hostas."
But her favorite were the jack-in-the-pulpits, which take years to seed and bloom. Lucas Jack, the grounds supervisor at The Cove, found one in bloom near his house and transplanted it to Ruth's Prayer Garden the day before the dedication.
"I think Ruth, if she were here, would give us her stamp of approval," Wilkes smiled.
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