George Beverly Shea was a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Growing up, I always loved to hear “that old man” sing. Mr. Shea, who died recently at age 104, probably was in his 50s when I first listened to him sing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “How Great Thou Art” on our old cabinet television..
The Rev. Billy Graham probably preached some grand sermons back then, but I’d usually turn the station after Mr. Shea sang, if I was given permission to turn the station, which I usually wasn’t.
I got to meet him years later after a concert at my church. He sang one song, truthfully I was so excited to see him that I don’t remember which one, and said, “Not bad for a 90-year-old.”
He surprised me later at dinner when he ordered a cheeseburger and french fries. Composer Kurt Kaiser, Mr. Shea’s accompanist, shook his head. “Bev eats like that, and he’s as healthy as a horse,” Kaiser said.
Mr. Shea to me
Mr. Shea, everyone else at the table called him Bev, but he always was Mr. Shea to me, told stories for hours and seemed incapable of going more than a few sentences without punctuating dialogue with song.
He’d be talking about something that had happened years ago and suddenly break out in lyric.
His booming baritone filled the restaurant. He wasn’t one to hide his light under a bushel.
He told us, and nearby diners, about joining Graham’s team. Mr. Shea had been singing in churches and meetings when he was offered a contract with a major network to sing more popular songs on his own national radio show. The salary was substantial. He pondered what he should do.
A copy of a poem
He talked to his mother, who said very little. But the next morning Mr. Shea found a copy of a Rhea Miller poem on the piano. His mother had put it where he wouldn’t miss it.
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand
Than to be the king of a vast domain
And be held in sin’s dread sway;
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
Mr. Shea sat down and wrote the music for “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” a song that he would sing for decades.
As far as I know, he never wavered in his choice to be Graham’s lesser light. Mr. Shea’s voice brought a golden warmth into a room, and the joy of his faith was apparent.
In more recent years, I interviewed him a few times on the telephone. His number was listed, and he usually answered the phone himself.
The last time I saw Mr. Shea was about four years ago. I was visiting Kurt in Asheville, and he suggested I come back to a service that night. He had a surprise.
The surprise walked in. Mr. Shea and Cliff Barrows, Graham’s music leader, came in, looking very much like the old men that they were.
But in front of my eyes, they were transformed. Barrows, who had looked brittle, frail and needed assistance walking moments before, was standing upright at the podium, pumping his fist, exhorting us to sing loudly and more joyfully. Mr. Shea was loud and joyous and remarkable.
Kurt played, and Mr. Shea sang. The voice wasn’t quite the same as what I remembered from “that old man,” but the voice was just as rich, and his joy was as complete. He laughed once, a hearty unreserved chuckle, and said the voice was fine, but the words were much harder to remember. For some songs, he didn’t try. He sang what he felt, and we were swept along with him to an incredible evening.
The old TV days of rearranging my schedule to hear him sing were in a different time. I watch him regularly on YouTube now.
When the famed blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance”) died, it was said that she never sounded a discordant note. When composer and singer Philip P. Bliss, famed for “It Is Well” and “Hallelujah What a Savior,” died in a tragic train wreck in Ashtabula, Ohio, the entire nation mourned.
Mr. Shea never sounded a discordant note, either, and with his passing comes mourning, but joy, great joy.
He was the most joyous man I ever met.
Tim Stevens covers high school sports.
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