Grammy Award-winning singer and Houghton College alumnus Dr. George Beverly Shea went to be with his Lord Tuesday evening, April 16, 2013, after suffering a stroke at the age of 104.
Dr. Shea spent his lifetime blessing millions of people around the world with his music. Much of his career he spent touring with the world-renowned Christian evangelist, Billy Graham. Dr. Shea has been called a “Gospel Music Treasure,” as well as “America’s Beloved Gospel Singer”.
In memory of the time that he spent at Houghton and the godly life that he led, a public memorial will be on display in the Houghton College President’s Office. The memorial will be open to public viewing from April 22 until May 31, 2013, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This will include a life-size painting of Bev by renowded portrait painter, Howard Sanden, a memorial book, note cards for personalized messages for his friends and family, memory bookmarks, and other memorabilia.
Dr. Shea (called “Bev” by his family and friends) was born in Winchester, Ontario, on February 1, 1909, son of Wesleyan pastor Rev. Adam J. Shea and Maude Whitney Shea. He grew up singing hymns around his family’s table and first sang publicly in his father’s church choir.
For a few years while Bev was in his teens, his family lived on the Houghton campus in what was the Greenburg house, overlooking the valley. Bev attended Houghton Academy, the Christian school that is still associated with Houghton College. Dr. Paul Shea (Bev’s nephew and a faculty member of Houghton College) commented that “Bev was a very shy youngster in school, and one would never have guessed he would one day stand in stadiums and sing to thousands. That is God’s doing. His mother played hymns on the old family piano every morning to start the day for the family. It was on that piano that Bev learned music and composed his famous tune, ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus.’” Composed at age 23 to Mrs. Rhea H. Miller’s poem, it is one of the most well-known and touching songs that he wrote.
Houghton Academy was just the beginning of a long association between Bev and Houghton. He attended Houghton College for a time. Later, in 1956, the college conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree. In 1973 the Shea family was honored as Alumnus of the Year. In 1983, as part of celebrating Houghton's Centennial, Bev was recognized as one of the “Houghton Hundred,” outstanding individuals of Houghton’s first century. In 2001, John Howard Sanden, one of America's premier portrait painters, painted a portrait of Bev and donated it to the college. The portrait hangs in the Greatbatch School of Music library but is temporarily on display in the Presidents office for the memorial.
Bev began his college career at Annesley College in Ottawa, Ontario, studying there from 1926-1928. He transferred to Houghton College in 1928, but in late 1929 he moved to New York City to help support his family (then living in New Jersey) during the Great Depression. Family was always very important to Bev, and he made an effort to stay in touch with all of them even during his last couple of years. “When the phone rang,” Paul noted, “Bev’s brother, Alton, or his sisters, or even his nephew, myself, never knew when it might be him and his wife on the phone just saying ’hello – thinking of you,’ chatting a few moments and giving his love and blessings. He was a very humble, gentle person, always thinking of others. He was a great story teller with plenty of stories to tell.”
In 1929, Bev began to work in radio broadcasting while employed as a clerk. In 1938, he quit his clerk job and worked full-time as an announcer and staff soloist for WMBI Radio, in Chicago, Ill. It was during this time that he met young Billy Graham. Graham had taken charge of Songs of the Night on Chicago’s WCFL radio station in 1943 and had heard Bev sing. Graham enlisted him to assist the broadcast with his wonderful music, and thus began a long-lasting friendship. Bev Shea continued to sing on Songs of the Night as well as Club Time while Graham was overseas in the Army.
Upon his return, Graham contacted Bev to sing in Charlotte, N.C., at one of his first city-wide crusades. After that, Bev unfailingly preceded the great evangelist over the next 60 years. Graham wrote in his autobiography, “I have sometimes said that I would feel lost getting up to preach if Bev were not there to prepare the way through an appropriate song.” Bev was an inspired artist and composer, and over the course of his life recorded more than 70 albums of sacred music.
Bev, once a shy, reserved boy, “became a major ‘star’ in the gospel world.” In the course of his lifetime, he received ten Grammy nominations, a Grammy Award in 1965, and a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammy Organization in 2011. He was also inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame (1978), the Religious Broadcasting Hall of Fame for his contributions to gospel Music (1996) and the inaugural class of the Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists’ ”Hall of Faith” (2008).
The Associated Press noted, "Shea's rendition of ’How Great Thou Art’ came to define the faith of a Protestant generation that Graham helped bring to Jesus Christ. He performed live before an estimated 200 million people at crusades over the years — taking him from North Dakota to North Korea and beyond."
The Shea family has been a part of the Houghton College family continuously for most of a century. Aileen Ortlip Shea (wife of brother Alton J. Shea) founded the art department at Houghton College. Their children, Paul and Eila, and their grandson Alan, also served as faculty or staff at Houghton. Dr. J. Whitney Shea, another brother, served as professor of sociology from 1934 – 1974. Ruth Shea Willet, Bev's sister, served in various staff positions at the college. Ruth was married to Ed Willet, longtime professor of economics at Houghton. Many other members of the Shea family are Houghton alumni.
According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s press release, George Beverly Shea is survived by his wife, Karlene; his son and daughter-in-law, Ronald and Kathy Shea; his daughter, Elaine Anderson; and his granddaughter, Tamara Anderson. He is also survived by brother Alton Shea and Alton’s son, Paul, and sister Ruth Willett; Karlene’s children and their spouses, Steve and Fran Aceto and Nanci and Jack Edwards; and Karlene’s grandchildren and their spouses, Ben and Tiffany Aceto, as well as their children: Kylie Aceto and Knox Hampton Aceto; Bill and Sallie Aceto; Matheson and Jeff White; and Ellis Edwards.
Bev’s biography at his online memorial (http://www.georgebeverlysheamemorial.org) says, “Every hymn he sang was a testimony to the saving power of Jesus Christ and to Dr. Shea's faith in Him. He was a noteworthy composer, and the songs he wrote incorporated the same message.”
Other public memorials for Bev include Wheaton College, The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, N.C., and the Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.
In lieu of any flowers, Bev requested that donations could be made to the following organizations: the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1 Billy Graham Parkway, Charlotte, NC 28201, www.billygraham.org); Samaritan’s Purse (PO Box 3000, Boone, NC 28607, www.samaritanspurse.org); World Medical Mission (a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse); and the Salvation Army (615 Slaters Lane, P.O. Box 269, Alexandria, VA 22313, www.salvationarmyusa.org.