April 20, 2013
Way back in my newspapering days I found myself reporting on the 1996 Billy Graham crusade in Charlotte. One evening before the service could get started a late-summer shower passed over the big football stadium down there.
The press table was down out on the field, out in the open, so I grabbed my gear and headed for shelter in the nearby northwest tunnel, the visitor’s tunnel during Panther games.
With the start of the service delayed, there I stood at the mouth of the tunnel, stared out at the rain and waited for the shower to pass. I was alone, or so I thought.
As my mind drifted off, mesmerized by the gentle rain, suddenly from just over my right shoulder came a voice, like that of an angel.
I turned, and there right beside me stood George Beverly Shea, the famous crusade baritone singer and Graham protégée.
Shea stuck out his hand and introduced himself. I shook it and mumbled my name. He quickly asked me where I was from, so know that Shea at least had heard of Elkin.
He started talking about his home, in Ontario. I did not know Shea was a Canadian. On TV I’d never heard him say ‘eh, the Canadians’ favorite non-word. (Yes, I’ve actually heard them say ‘eh.)
Shea began describing how pretty Ontario is, and it is pretty; I’ve driven through there. And he began talking about how much he loved to take his boat out and fish on the picturesque lakes of Ontario. I had never pictured Shea as an outdoorsman.
He lovingly described a day on the lake in his boat.
He went on and on, chatting as though we had been buddies all our lives. What a warm and friendly and appealing personality I found in that brief moment with George Beverly Shea.
That part of his personality isn’t reflected on TV. The crusade broadcasts only show him singing majestically from the pulpit.
I’ll talk more about Graham in a future column, but he was guarded around the press and wisely so.
But Shea, who tended to stay in the background much of the time during his many years with Graham, had no such inhibitions. He spoke freely, even though I was a reporter who might quote every word he uttered.
I wasn’t much of a conversationalist for Shea. Frankly, I was struck dumb, for the most part, by the sudden appearance of this angel from Canada.
After a mostly one-way conversation Shea moved on, presumably to take advantage of the rain delay to meet some more new ol’ buddies.
Bev Shea, as they called him, died April 16 at the grand age of 104. Son of a Wesleyan pastor, Shea was credited with singing to an estimated 220 million people at Graham crusades over the decades.
A young Graham heard Shea sing on a Chicago radio station in 1943, traveled to the station, found Shea on the air and hired Shea on the spot for Graham’s first radio program.
They worked together closely until the end, with Shea late in life moving to Graham’s neighborhood in Montreat.
Most of us know Shea only from the TV crusades. But he also was a very accomplished vocalist apart from his day job with the Graham organization.
He recorded more than 70 albums and had numerous concerts and other music endeavors to his credit. A Grammy Award winner in 1966, he received a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2011.
I found it insightful that during the rain shower Shea didn’t stick with the crusade dignitaries holed up in whatever guarded location they had deep in the bowels of the football stadium.
Instead, Shea got out, walked around and seemed to thoroughly enjoy rubbing elbows with ordinary folks like me whom he otherwise would never meet.
I checked out some video tributes to Shea, and it seemed the people who spoke about him had gleams in their eyes. They did not appear to be reading from a script prepared by some publicist and tailored for public consumption.
Instead, they appeared to speak from the heart, genuine in their admiration.
When I got a glimpse of Shea, I was charmed as well. I came away thinking of him as a good-hearted, friendly, happy, genuine Christian man
May we follow Shea’s lead.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.