In 1940, a young man graduated from nearby Wheaton College and, shortly afterwards, assumed his first ministerial assignment as the new pastor of the Village Church in Western Springs. His name was Billy Graham. And, while Graham served here only a short time, he established a friendship with a gospel singer, George Beverley Shea, that would last more than 70 years. See photo.
As background, Shea was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1909 and began his singing career at the age of 8 or 9. His father, a minister, encouraged him to sing at his church. However, as an adult, Shea worked in the corporate office of Mutual Life of New York for nine years. During this time, he also appeared on the Fred Allen “Amateur Hour” program, sort of the “America’s Got Talent” of its day.
While offered opportunities singing secular music, Shea wanted to focus on religious music. As a result, he joined the Moody Bible Institute’s radio station, WMBI, as both an announcer and soloist. He also became a soloist on “Club Time”, a popular religious hymn program carried on the ABC radio network.
About this time, young Billy Graham called Shea and talked to him about joining his church’s “Songs in the Night” radio program that was being broadcast from Western Springs to more than 30 cities. So, on January 2, 1944, Shea began his ministry as the featured soloist broadcast live every Sunday evening from 10:15 p.m. to 11 p.m. The broadcasts originated in the basement of the Village Church and were carried by station WCFL.
Soon, due to Shea’s popularity, the program was being broadcast twice every Sunday evening. See photo.
After eight years, Shea turned his duties over to another soloist so that he could devote all of his time to Billy Graham’s evangelistic association. However, despite his frequent travels, he kept his home in Western Springs at 4068 Garden Avenue.
The rest is history. Shea would play a key role in Billy Graham’s famous crusades for nearly 60 years. He would usually sing a quiet solo just prior to Graham’s message. In fact, Graham said that Shea always prepared his crowds … often numbering in the tens of thousands … by singing, which he felt was often more powerful than the sermon.
Starting in 1951, Shea recorded some 500 vocal solos on more than 70 albums, including nine compact discs, on the RCA and World Records labels. Shea is best known for his rendition of “How Great Thou Art”. .
During his career, Shea was nominated for ten Grammy Awards, winning one in 1966 for his album “Southland” in the Best Gospel or Other Religious Recording category. And, in 2011, he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award alongside Julie Andrews, the Kingston Trio, Dolly Parton, and the Ramones.
While Shea married Erma Scarfe in 1934 and had two children, she passed away in 1976. In 1985, Shea married Karlene Aceto at Billy Graham’s home in Montreat, North Carolina.
Following Shea’s death last April, Billy Graham said, “George Beverly Shea was one of my closest friends for nearly 70 years, and has been one of the dearest friends my wife, Ruth, and I have ever had. He was one of the first members of our evangelistic team. Beginning in Chicago, we travelled the world together“. See photo.
Each week, the Western Springs Historical Society presents a “Blast from the Past”. For more information, visit us at www.westernspringshistory.org.