George Beverly Shea Celebrates 103rd Birthday
George Beverly Shea Celebrates 103rd Birthday
by Dan Wooding, ASSIST News Service
It is hard to believe that George Beverly Shea is about to reach the grand old age of 103, but this amazing man will celebrate this great achievement Wednesday, February 1, 2012 in Montreat, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife Karlene, and close to his dear friend, Billy Graham.
And while he won’t be partying like a teenager, the youthful centenarian will celebrate the day in the company of his family and in quiet reflection, reading greetings from around the world now pouring in to him.
He says he is especially thankful for the dear people with whom he has ministered and traveled the world since the day he met Billy Graham. “For all these years, the fellowship of the BGEA team has been precious as I have sought to serve the Lord,” says Shea.
“Bev” Shea holds the record for singing to the most people in person because his wonderful bass-baritone has been a part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Team for so many years.
He has been nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, won a Grammy in 1965, was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame by the Gospel Music Association in 1978, and in 1996 was also inducted into the National Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Bev Shea also was honored by the The Recording Academy who honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in conjunction with the 2011 GRAMMY Awards.
Some time back, I was interviewed Bev about his extraordinary life in which he has recorded over 70 albums of timeless songs and classic hymns. One of his latest at the time was a CD called I’d Rather Have Jesus (Word Records), which is a 20-song treasury celebrating his life and ministry.
He began the interview with a surprise. Although he is known as “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer,” he was actually born in Canada!
“Yes, I was born in Canada; it was in a town called Winchester, Ontario, which is 35 miles from Ottawa, the capital city of Canada,” Bev Shea admitted. “My dad was a preacher there for 20 years and then he went to Ottawa for 10 years. After that he moved down to the New York area. I followed him there during my 20s.
“His final pastorate was in Syracuse, New York and he decided he’d better go to Heaven.”
Bev then spoke about his time at Houghton College in Houghton, New York.
“The college is near Buffalo and Rochester and is a fine college,” he said.
He also revealed that it was his mother who first spotted his musical talent.
“I’m in the middle of eight children and my mother noticed that I couldn’t stay away from the piano,” he said. “When I was very young, before the others came along, I was banging on the piano and so she took time to teach me some chords, like people do on a guitar these days. I took lessons for a while, but I found out that I would rather just develop different chords in all the different keys and play by ear. I don’t do it for people today, but I still play like this for my wife and for my own enjoyment morning and night.”
I then asked Mr. Shea how he first met Billy Graham.
“Oh, that was marvelous,” he said. “I had worked for 10 years during the Twenties in New York in the medical department of the Mutual Life Insurance Company,” he said. “During that time, I met Dr. Houghton, Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, and he heard me sing a few songs. Then he was transferred to Chicago to become the president of Moody Bible Institute and we met again at a Bible conference in Pennsylvania. Dr. Houghton said, ‘I’d like to ask you if you have ever considered Christian broadcasting. I told him that I didn’t know it was available. That’s how it went in 1939. I accepted and went to Chicago, staying there five and a half years.
“One morning, there was a rap on my office door. I looked out and there was a tall young man with blond hair and we shook hands. He was 21 and I was 31. It was Billy Graham and he had traveled in from Wheaton College on a train just to say ‘hello.’ He said that he listened to my morning hymn show called Hymns From The Chapel. That’s how we first got acquainted.
“I came into this work with Mr. Graham in 1947 after we had exchanged letters and talked on the phone. He said he wanted me to be his gospel singer. I thanked him, but told him the only gospel singers I’ve ever heard about would sing a verse or two and stop and talk awhile. ‘Would I have to do that?’ I asked him. He chuckled and said, ‘I hope not.’
“With that, I said, ‘Well, I’d like to come with you. That was in November of 1947 and I’ve been with him ever since.”
Bev said that his first meetings with Mr. Graham took place at the Old Armory in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What did he sing on that first night?
“I sang I Will Sing The Wondrous Story, the old congregational hymn. And I remember that someone in the audience gave that information to Billy Graham’s mother and she wrote me a note in which she said, ‘Whenever you come around, please sing that again.’”
Bev Shea then talked about his memories of Billy Graham’s historic “Big Tent” crusade in Los Angeles, which launched the young evangelist into international prominence.
“Yes, we had those tents at the corner of Washington and Hill Streets,” he said. “It was supposed to be for only three weeks, but the Lord was moving mightily and different ones came to the Lord such as Stuart Hamblen, who wrote, It Is No Secret and This Old House. Because of what was happening, the local committee asked Mr. Graham to continue, so we were there for a whole eight weeks.”
I asked him to recall how this became the turning point for Billy Graham.
“Well, of course that happened when William Randolph Hearst [the newspaper magnet] issued the directive to his staff to ‘Puff Graham.’ That happened, and we saw more and more people come to the meetings after that.”
How Stuart Hamblen wrote It Is No Secret…
Bev then shared how Hamblen came to write It Is No Secret.
“What happened was that Stuart Hamblen had accepted Christ at the Los Angeles meetings and he’d done some movies with John Wayne,” he said. “One day, the story goes, John Wayne was walking along Hollywood Boulevard there and the two met up. John Wayne had read about Stuart’s conversion and asked him, ‘What’s this I hear about you Stuart, going forward at Mr. Graham’s meetings?’ They apparently talked for a while and then Stuart said, ‘It’s no secret what God did for me. If he can do it for me, He can do for anyone.’ And the movie star said, ‘That sounds like a song to me.’ I’m not sure if that’s true or not. And so Stuart Hamblen sat down at his Hammond organ at home and wrote this wonderful song that I still sing today at Mr. Graham’s meetings.”
I then told Bev Shea that the first I had heard him sing was in 1954 when I was part of a massive crowd of 120,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium. I asked him for his recollections of those times in the UK.
“The Harringay arena seated some 12,000 and it was filled every night,” he began. “And then someone thought of the idea of carrying the meetings by landlines to other parts of the United Kingdom. During the War, they had extra phone lines that they used and somebody saw those idle lines and got them all hooked up. And so one night we had some fifty areas hooked up to Harringay. They were listening in churches, auditoriums in Wales and Scotland, and Ireland. It was marvelous!”
I wondered if Bev Shea had ever met Winston Churchill during his visits to Britain.
“I never met him, but I heard Mr. Churchill in Parliament and I also heard his speech in Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow, when he was running again for Parliament. He talked for 70 minutes. I was sitting beside Mr. Graham and he, and I, were very impressed with Mr. Churchill's oratory.”
He then spoke about an experience with the Queen Mother. “I never got to meet her before she passed away in her sleep in March, 2002,” Bev said. “But back in the fifties, when she was Queen she and King George VI [her husband] decided to visit Washington, DC, and Mrs. Roosevelt entertained them at the White House.
“There was some entertainment that night. They had Chief White Feather, an Indian who was an opera singer. He sang two arias and then, when the audience wanted more, he said, ‘May I sing something from my heart’ and then he sang, I’d Rather Have Jesus, the song I had the privilege of writing the music to, but not the words; they were written by Rhea Miller. After he had sung that song, the Queen looked at him and said, ‘That song bespeaks the sentiment of my heart and that of my husband.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”
Bev Shea then spoke of his encounters with Richard Nixon who attended the 1957 New York Crusade at Yankee Stadium.
“He came on a very hot night and we had about 90,000 people there,” he recalled.
I then asked if he had ever sung for Nixon at the White House after he became president.
“Yes, I did,” he replied. “It was in the East Room and Mr. Graham spoke at the very first service he held there. Nixon had decided to hold Sunday morning services and not everybody agreed with the idea, but he liked to do that. Congressmen and others came, and I sang, How Great Thou Art. Then we had had breakfast upstairs. Being a Canadian I thought that was really something.
“Afterwards, Nixon sat down at an old banged up Steinway piano and went up and down the keys and he began singing, ‘He will hold me fast, for my savior loves me, so he will hold me fast.’ I wondered where he ever heard that. I kept inquiring and I understand when he was thirteen or fourteen years of age he went to the Paul Rader meetings in Los Angeles and that was the signature song every night for the choir.”
I then asked Mr. Shea to name some of his favorite hymns.
“I’m never tired of How Great Thou Art,” he said. “It seems like I’ve sung it so many times but the words are almost like scripture, you know. And there are others that I like when I go to my the organ I have at home here or the piano I often sing, I Saw One Hanging In A Tree… and also And Can it Be…. And then Great Is Thy Faithfulness is another that I love. I knew the man who wrote the music for that. His name was William Runyan and he worked at Moody Bible Institute.”
Bev Shea then revealed that he has been honored by the Guinness Book of World Records for having sung before more people 220 million -- more than anyone else in history.
“They sent me a certificate that my wife, Karlene, framed and put on the wall here at my home,” he said. “The truth is that they didn’t come to hear me; they came to hear Billy Graham.”
I interjected by saying, “Yes, but they came to hear you sing as well!”
Bev suffered a heart attack in 2004. He spoke about his hospitalization in the same hospital where Billy Graham was also being treated. “I wrote him a little note too that said, ‘I don’t like to leave you here, but they say I can go home now.’”
When asked how he would describe his friend, Billy Graham, he replied, “If he’d never met the Lord, he still would have been a gracious gentleman. But he met the Lord, and He transformed his life at a young age, gave him that great gift of just interpreting the Word and bringing in the net.”
Bev Shea said he meant by “bringing in the net” -- the invitation to receive Christ at the end of each service.
“When I sit there on the platform and pray, I have to admit that once in a while I peek and see them coming forward by the hundreds,” he said. “What a thrill that is. And his son, Franklin, is being blessed and is doing very well. He’s quite a preacher. Some time back, I went down to Mobile, Alabama, with my wife and he had me do some numbers. We also did New Orleans with Billy and Cliff Barrows.”
“It has been 20 years of bliss,” he said at the time. “I was a widower for 10 years in a suburb of Chicago and that’s a long time. When we were over in Korea in 1984, Billy brought me into his room and said, ‘I’ve been talking to Ruth my wife in Montreat this morning on the phone and we think that 10 years is enough, and so he mentioned Karlene’s name.” He was right, and Bev and Karlene were married in Montreat, North Carolina.
“Mr. Graham didn't do the service,” said Bev. “We had the pastor of our church here, and he put on his nice robe and we were married in Billy’s home.”
He said that he and Billy Graham keep in touch regularly. “He called me on the phone just the other day,” he said. “He lives just a mile away from me.”
What an example, that he, Mr. Graham and the other veteran, Cliff Barrows, are for those who think we should retire at 65!
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