The Billy Graham Center Museum has mounted a special exhibit to honor the legacy of George Beverly Shea, who died Tuesday, April 16.
Shea, a famous gospel soloist with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, sang at Graham’s evangelistic crusades for decades, often performing just before Graham preached. He was 104.
The exhibit consists of a dozen photos that chronicle Shea’s life from the 1940s through his 100th birthday in 2009.
Shea was known for his rich, resonant voice and soaring rendition of the hymn “How Great Thou Art.” He was a radio announcer, soloist, and Grammy Award-winning recording artist who produced more than 70 albums.
“I first met Bev Shea while in Chicago when he was on Moody Radio,” says Billy Graham ’43 in a news release from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “As a young man starting my ministry, I asked Bev if he would join me. He said yes and for over 60 years we had the privilege of ministering together across the country and around the world.”
Dr. Lon Allison, Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, describes Shea as “a friend of Wheaton College, and one of the happiest and friendliest people I’ve ever met.” The George Beverly Shea Recording Studio, located in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, is named in Shea’s honor.
Several members of the Wheaton College community have fond members of Shea. As a child, Director of Academic and Media Technology J.R. Smith grew up listening to Shea on Graham’s “Hour of Decision” broadcast. “George Beverly Shea was a friend of the family on the radio when I was growing up,” he says.
Later, as a graduate student at Wheaton, Smith worked in a Glen Ellyn recording studio that duplicated reel-to-reel recordings of “Hour of Decision” for international distribution. During the late 1990s, Smith, by then a College employee, decided to rename what was then called “Studio A” for Shea. It is now one of three locations in the Billy Graham Center named for Graham’s ministry colleagues, including Barrows Auditorium and the Wilson Suite.
Shea was moved by the honor. During his first visit to the George Beverly Shea Recording Studio, Shea recorded briefly, then took a photo that now hangs outside the studio. Shea maintained contact with Smith through the years, often recording interviews with WETN staff.
“He would call me once a year and say, in his booming voice, ‘J.R., how’s my studio doing? ’” Smith recalls. “At one point, he donated toward the upkeep of the studio. And every year, he would sing me a song over the phone.”
Today, the studio is often used for editing and mastering of Wheaton College Conservatory performances, including the recording of the Conservatory’s annual Christmas Festival.
Over the last few months, Wheaton College Conservatory graduate Nathaniel Olson ’11 enjoyed a friendship with Shea. Olson, a music performance graduate now studying for an M.A. in music at Indiana University, counted Shea as one of his heroes.
Olson’s paternal grandparents and great-grandparents sang in crusade choirs when Graham came to Minnesota. He remembers watching footage of crusades as a child and looking for his family members in the audience and in the choir.
“Of course, with Billy Graham, there was always George Beverly Shea singing before him,” Olson says. “Because I admired Mr. Shea as a boy, as singing became a serious calling, and a serious ministry for me, it was a great desire of my heart to meet him.”
Olson’s mentor, Marilee Melvin ’72, facilitated an introduction to Shea. Olson sent Shea some recordings of his performances of two songs from Shea’s repertoire —“How Great Thou Art” and “Fairest Lord Jesus”—and was thrilled when Shea’s family invited him to Montreat, North Carolina for a short visit last September.
“It was supposed to be a half-hour visit, but it turned into a six-hour adventure!” Olson says. “We just hit it off. Mr. Shea would start singing, then I would start singing. I played my trumpet for him. We spent the whole afternoon just sharing stories over fudge and coffee and singing. He prayed for me, and we kept in touch.”
Olson visited Shea and his wife Karlene again shortly after Shea’s 104th birthday in February.
“He insisted that I call him ‘Papa Shea,’” Olson says. “He was so approachable—such a humble, down-to-earth man who wanted to know about me and my life. He has so many wonderful stories, after singing for 220 million people around the world, but he wanted to know what I was singing, what I was doing. He told me about his life at my age, when he was working for an insurance company and unsure about his future.”
“I can still hear see him gesture toward his head and then his heart, saying ‘This is what you have, and when you use it for God, he blesses it,’” Olson says. “His main piece of advice to me was that the only thing that matters on this earth is what we do for the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what will last.”
Excerpts of Shea’s interviews with WETN, Wheaton College’s FM radio station, can be heard here. Additionally, the Billy Graham Center Archives has a memorial page for Shea here. The Billy Graham Center Museum exhibit honoring George Beverly Shea will be available during the museum’s regular hours. The Museum is located at 500 College Avenue in Wheaton. For more information, visit wheaton.edu/bgcmuseum.