George Beverly Shea: A man of surprising humor

Assisting Billy Graham with his memoir, Just As I Am, was the privilege of a lifetime, and getting to interview George Beverly Shea proved to be one of the highlights of that project.

The warm baritone, who died April 16 at 104, was as gentle and humble in person as he had always seemed on the Graham television broadcasts. But I was struck by his sense of humour.

I asked if he was recognised often from all those TV appearances. He said, "Just enough to make it fun but not so much that it became a problem."

He told me once he was changing planes at O'Hare International in Chicago and noticed a young couple staring as he walked by. "Sure enough," he said, "the man came back and asked if I was that guy who sang for Billy Graham. I told him I was. He hollered to his wife, "Honey, come here! It's George Beverly LaHaye!"

Classically trained, Mr Shea took pride in memorising his solos. But once he blanked on the lyrics to one of the verses in his signature song, How Great Thou Art. "The interlude ended and I remembered nothing. So I just made up words on the fly. I sang, 'And when I looked, up into the air, I saw the birdies everywhere...' As far as I could tell, no one was the wiser. Many in the audience just nodded and smiled."

Ten years Mr Graham's senior, Bev Shea was kind to his employer. When the evangelist developed Parkinson's and became infirm, he still made the effort to get to special events. Billy Graham Evangelistic Association staffers recall Mr Shea sitting next to him at a dinner and discreetly cutting his meat for him.

"We had the privilege of ministering together across the country and around the world," Graham said in a statement released Wednesday. "Bev was one of the most humble, gracious men I have ever known and one of my closest friends. I loved him as a brother."