On a November night more than 60 years ago, in Charlotte, N.C., George Beverly Shea sang his first song with the Billy Graham Crusade.
He shares the memory during a telephone conversation a day before Christmas Eve, when he, wife Karlene, and their family and friends would gather to celebrate the birth of Christ in their Montreat home, less than a mile from Shea’s dear friend Billy Graham.
The Canada-born Shea clears his throat and sings into the telephone that same song he sang in 1947, after the opening prayer: “I will sing the wondrous sto-ry of the Christ who died for me.” His deep, rich voice goes up a notch on the first syllable of story, transmitting through the telephone with much of the same fervor and power it must have had during his first Crusade.
It is phenomenal that he is still singing with clarity and strength. Bev sings frequently at The Cove, and he recently sang at a gathering of 5,000 in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where Will Graham gave a brief message–not what you would expect for someone turning 100 years old. Shea’s century mark is Feb. 1.
“I’ve been long on the ladder,” Shea says. “I can look down and see the scenery a little better than those who are still climbing.”
And what beautiful scenery. Since that first Crusade in Charlotte in 1947, Shea has traveled with Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows all over the world–from Australia to Korea, China, Germany and London–to “Sing the Wondrous Story” and to proclaim “How Great Thou Art.”
“They say that Billy has spoken to 220 million people,” Shea says. “When you look back through the years, it’s truly amazing, all the great memories. We were in Korea three times. We were in Australia four times. We were in Brazil and Germany.”
One of his favorite Crusades was in Australia, when an 11-year-old boy came forward and gave his heart
“I’ll never forget that,” Shea says. “It was outdoors, and it was misting and raining and all, and the late Grady Wilson spoke to him and helped him as he prayed to take the Lord as his Savior.”
The little boy was Shea’s son, Ron, who is now 60 and has worked with the Crusade ministry for 30 years. Having seen his dad’s ministry up-close, Ron says, “He connects with people through the music. And the connection is the Gospel, the love of Christ through the songs that he sings.”
Bev Shea was 31 and working as an announcer at the Moody Bible Institute Radio Station, WMBI, when he first met the young Billy Graham.
Later, when Billy formed his Crusade Team and invited Shea to join, Shea responded: “The only Gospel singers I’ve ever known sing a verse or two, then they stop and talk for a while. Would I have to do that?” Billy chuckled and said, “I hope not.” Shea agreed to join.
Shea spends his days now at home with Karlene, near their children and grandchildren, and never far from his 1937 Steinway and small pipe organ. He is constantly singing, almost always the old hymns that he loves so much. His strong voice comes again through the telephone, without the organ, but rising and falling in perfect pitch.
“Oh can it be upon a tree my Savior died for me? My soul is thrilled, my heart is thrilled to think He died for me.”
Shea looks forward to continuing his walk with the Lord. “I have a very happy home, cheerful wife, grandchildren and friends,” he says. “I have a good appetite, and I have a hunger to know more about the Lord. … I like to say that we have promises to memorize and songs to sing.”
For more on George Beverly Shea’s 100th birthday, see: