Mr. Shea first met Mr. Graham in 1940 when Mr. Graham was pastoring the Village Church of Western Springs in Illinois – his only full-time pastorate. Mr. Graham was 21, and Mr. Shea was 31. Mr. Shea first sang for him on the Chicago program “Songs in the Night” in 1943, and by the late 1940s, the pair – along with music and program director Cliff Barrows, formed the heart of Mr. Graham’s ministry. It was in Mr. Graham’s hometown of Charlotte, N.C., that Mr. Shea sang in the first of many citywide Crusades.
Mr. Graham and his late wife, Ruth, didn’t just treasure Mr. Shea’s friendship, but played cupid to Mr. Shea and his second wife, Karlene. His first wife, Erma, died in 1976.
“I used to say that when God conceived the idea of husbands, that Bev was the mold,” Karlene said.
Back in the ’80s, Karlene worked in Mr. Graham’s office in Montreat, N.C. Mr. Shea would come and go and also sang at her church. They married in 1986 in the Grahams’ home.
“He has five organs and a piano,” Karlene said. “Every time he gives an organ away, another one finds its way into the house.” He still plays them on occasion.
The couple shares a home in Montreat. Karlene said her husband regularly breaks out into hymns and knows all the verses. She sings only when she’s alone.
“By the time you reach 100 years of age, you have a lot of friends,” she said. Mr. Shea used to answer his own letters – typing them up on the computer – but now he sticks to phone calls and entertains visitors. Young musicians come by for inspiration and advice.
Mr. Shea was also an inspiration to countless households during World War II. He worked in radio as an announcer and Gospel singer and helped boost the morale. He had a special song for the troops.
With all the pre-Crusade concerts and all the concerts between Crusades, Karlene said, the pair has traveled quite a bit over the years. The best part, she said, was meeting fellow Christians wherever they went.
“People would come out of the woodwork and hug him,” she said. Once, the couple was on a plane and the pilot came back to see Mr. Shea.
George Beverly Shea turns 104 on Friday, Feb. 1! Please join us in wishing him a happy birthday. The Billy Graham Library will host an exhibit in tribute to George Beverly Shea from Feb. 1 to March 31. The exhibit includes family photos, awards and the piano his mother taught him to play on – the same piano where he composed “I’d Rather Have Jesus.” A special tribute website has also been created…check it out here.