That ‘Sound’ Still So Sweet for Mrs. Shea

By   •   March 1, 2013

George Beverly Shea misses those ivories.

Familiar to the touch, the piano he grew up playing is currently sitting on display at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., — one of the centerpieces of the George Beverly Shea exhibit, “How Sweet the Sound.”

“He keeps asking, ‘When are they going to bring that piano home?'” said Mr. Shea’s wife, Karlene, as she toured the Library’s exhibit on Wednesday.

Not until the exhibit is over, at the end of March. Not that Mr. Shea plays the piano much these days. He is 104 years old. But there’s plenty of sentiment in having that piano nearby.

It was the piano his mother taught him how to play. It was the piano he wrote the music to “I’d rather have Jesus” in one day at age 23.

And it was the same piano he used to hold onto as an infant as he learned to walk.

“He misses that piano,” Karlene said.

Even though he’s not playing music much these days, Mr. Shea still keeps his voice fresh by singing some of the old hymns. In fact, Karlene enjoys his voice now more than ever.

“He still sings. And his voice is cleaner than it’s ever been,” Karlene said, noting she’s never seen him use sheet music to play a song. “Back in the days, his voice would drink in all that smoke on an airplane and dry it out.”

But it was all the traveling around the globe at Billy Graham Crusades that helped make George Beverly Shea a household name as “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer.”

And it was his booming, mellow voice that earned him 10 Grammy nominations, winning two (just one of the many items on display at the exhibit).

“The main thing about Bev’s voice is that it’s comforting,” said Karlene, who took a minute to speak about the old hymns. “A lot of hymns are being thrown out in the church. But they’re the history of the church. The theology of the church. The comfort of the church.”

Karlene, who worked in Mr. Graham’s office in the 1980s, married Mr. Shea in 1986 thanks in part to Mr. Graham and wife Ruth Bell Graham, who did their part as matchmakers. (Mr. Shea was a bachelor for nearly a decade after his first wife, Erma, passed away in 1976).

Karlene’s life has been anything but boring since, with Mr. Shea’s wit and humor keeping her on her toes.

“He tells me every day how wonderful I am — that’s the first sign of deep dementia,” laughed Karlene as she reports Mr. Shea’s mind to be very sharp. “He’s funny. People will call to wish him a happy birthday and he’ll say ‘Hold on, I’ve got to get my calculator out to figure out how old I am.’

“He’s sweet. He surprises me all the time.”

Just as some of the memorabilia caught her a little off guard at the Library — in a good way.

“They’ve done it beautifully,” she said. “I’ve even seen a couple pictures I’ve never seen before.”

But there were plenty she had seen. Time and time again. Yet they never get old.

“That’s one of my favorites,” Karlene said, staring an extra moment at one of the old Crusade photos. “I love it to see Cliff (Barrows) directing ‘How Great Thou Art’ with Bev singing beside him.”

Take a walk down memory lane by visiting the George Bevery Shea Tribute page.

Help Billy Graham’s ‘Ongoing Crusade’ continue by becoming a Friend of the Library.