Reverend Billy Graham & Ruth Bell

updated 02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 01:00AM

The courting rituals of the young Billy Graham were not conventionally romantic, to say the least. Instead of sending 20-year-old Ruth Bell bouquets of roses, he brought her bottles of vitamin pills. Instead of taking her dancing under the stars, he insisted that she do jumping jacks and toe-touches. The Wheaton College Bible student, who had skipped a semester due to fatigue, was more than flattered. "When I came back from our first date," Ruth, now 75, recalled, "I remember telling the Lord, 'If you let me spend my life with that man, it would be the greatest privilege I could think of.' "

Her prayers were answered. In Montreat Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, on Aug. 13, 1943, the daughter of missionaries wed the 24-year-old Baptist pastor she had met at Wheaton. The next morning, Ruth awoke to find her new husband asleep on the floor. "Daddy thought the bed was too soft or something," says their daughter Gigi Tchividjian-Graham, 50, "but Mom was devastated." Over the next five decades, Ruth would spend many more nights alone in bed, often sleeping with her husband's tweed jacket, while Rev. Billy Graham, now 77, took his spiritual message around the world.

After the wedding, the couple started a ministry in the town of Western Springs outside Chicago. They were so poor that a piece of red satin over a lightbulb served as a fireplace. As Graham's fame and mission grew, so did his travel schedule, leaving Ruth mostly alone to raise their five children. "I'd rather have a little of Bill than a lot of any other man," she said.

Intent upon making a home for her husband, Ruth built a log house on 150 wooded acres in Montreat in 1954. Graham returned there to his wife and family after each crusade. "Every time they got back together, it was like a honeymoon," says Gigi. "They shared a lot of physical love. That was very reassuring to me." Their commitment was apparent to everyone. "He would stand up whenever she came in the room," says Graham biographer William Martin, adding that a 69-year-old Graham told him, "You know, we're still lovers." Today their intimacy has been hindered by the complications of old age. He is fighting Parkinson's disease; she, a chronic lower-back problem. They spend their time at home, in twin armchairs, in front of a real fireplace. "They don't like to be separated by a lot of miles," says Gigi. "They just like knowing the other one's right there."

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