Growing Up Shea: George Beverly Shea’s Son Shares About His Dad

June 13, 2024

When Ron Shea was born, his dad, George Beverly Shea, was already a well-known singer and a member of Billy Graham’s original team with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. His dad traveled frequently and was the “sermon in song” each night of a Crusade just before Billy Graham stood up to speak.

Ron himself has worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for over 40 years, traveling with Crusade teams and World Wide Pictures, and now working at the offices at the Billy Graham Library where he’s a Senior Ambassador.

He recently shared some behind-the-scenes stories about what it was like to grow up in the ministry.

The Shea and family – from left, Elaine Shea, Erma Shea, George Beverly Shea, and Ron Shea

What is your favorite memory of your dad?

My dad was often described as a “gentle giant.” He was a warm, calm-spirited man. He was a great storyteller, and I miss getting to hear some of his stories. As children, my sister and I loved hearing stories about his childhood adventures in Canada and New York. He once shared a story of how he and his friend accidentally broke a water reservoir and got into a lot of trouble in their small town. His father was the town minister and my dad was one of eight children, so they were well-known throughout the small town – his five sisters and two brothers (of which he was one of the middle children).

Did your dad have a favorite song he liked to sing at Crusades?

His favorite song was “How Great Thou Art.” He actually introduced that hymn at the Billy Graham Crusade in New York City at Madison Square Garden in 1957. During that event, they sang that hymn more than 100 times. They tried to sing it at the Toronto Crusade before the New York event, but it became popular after the New York Crusade.

In the song, he didn’t like the words “mighty thunder,” because he didn’t think it flowed musically, so he changed it to “rolling thunder,” much to the initial chagrin of the writer of the song. But, when Elvis Presley recorded the song using my dad’s change of “rolling thunder,” it became the norm from then on.

When did your dad first perform for other people?

His first performance singing was at age 16 in Ottawa, Canada at his dad’s church. His best friend, at age 16, passed away, and the mother and father of his friend asked him to sing at the funeral. He sat down at the piano and sang the Fanny Crosby hymn, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.” He loved that song. Many years later, a recording of him singing that song was played at his funeral when they brought his casket in.

When did George Beverly Shea write his first song?

He wrote the tune for “I’d Rather Have Jesus” at age 23 when his mom put the words to the poem by Rhea H. Miller on the family piano. He sang the song that very day in his father’s church. That song became the testimony of his life. It became the roadmap of where life took him.

When did your dad feel called to the ministry?

As a young man, my dad took voice lessons above Carnegie Hall. He auditioned and could have worked on Broadway, but he felt that he couldn’t go that direction since it wasn’t using his talent for God. Eventually, he met a man from Chicago, Willard H. Houghton, with the Moody Bible Institute. They were starting a radio station called WMBI near Chicago, and they wanted my dad to sing on their radio shows. At the time, Billy Graham was a college student at Wheaton and heard my dad singing on the radio, and Billy Graham thought it would be great to have George Beverly Shea on his radio show and approached him to participate. From there, the two became lifelong friends and joined together in ministry.

Ron and George Beverly Shea

As a child, did you travel often with your dad?

Yes, in the summertime, we’d travel with him to his Crusades. We drove to New York City to be with him during the Crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957. That Crusade was 16 weeks, so he was gone for a long time.

In 1959, Billy Graham had Crusades in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. At the Melbourne Crusade, I made my own personal decision to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior, so that is a Crusade that stands out in memory as well.

Do you have any funny stories about your dad?

My dad was a dignified man. Whenever he’d go to the hardware store in Western Springs, Illinois, where we lived, he’d always wear a tie.

What did you think about your dad’s fame when you were small?

One day, when I was very small, maybe five or six years-old, I went to the bank with my dad in a small town. Some people recognized him at the bank, and asked him to sing carols (it was around Christmastime). My dad started singing carols right there in the bank, but I was so embarrassed, I ran out the front door.

What do you see as your dad’s legacy?

He loved Jesus, and he loved singing about Jesus, but he also loved music. Fortunately, those gifts always came together and gave him a career. In the early days of his career, very few people were recording hymns, so he was kind of a pioneer of early Christian music. He even recorded albums in Nashville.

Your dad lived to the age of 104. What was the secret to his longevity?

Black coffee and Jesus. He loved Jesus and drank black coffee every day.

Did your dad have a favorite Bible verse or Bible story?

His favorite verse was Psalm 28:7: “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.”

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