By Mark Rhoads
The recent death of Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Rev. Billy Graham, recalls a very early entry in summer 2006 to this Illinois Hall of Fame feature series in Illinois Review. Billy and Ruth met at Wheaton College in Du Page County when both were students there during World War II. There is a legend in my family that on their honeymoon night, Billy and Ruth only drove as far from Wheaton as my grandmother's house in Western Springs because gas rationing severely limited their radius.
My grandparents were wonderful people but if the story is true, it would not seem like the most romantic venue for a honeymoon. My grandparents Burton and Amanda Clark Rhoads were a deacon and deaconess of the Village Baptist Church in Western Springs and they were among those who made the decision to hire Billy Graham for his first and only job as a regular associate pastor and then a pastor of a local church. He served in Western Springs about a year and a half before moving on to Campus Crusade for Christ, radio ministries, and other activities in late 1945.
Because of the worldwide fame of Billy Graham, we sometimes overlook the independent fame, great musical talent, and recording success of Graham's close friend and associate---and a Western Springs, Illinois resident for 62 years---who is now 98 years old. George Beverly Shea was born in Winchester, Ontario, Canada on Feb. 1, 1909. He has become one of the most popular and long-lived gospel singers in the world. Bev's father was a minister of the Weslyan Church and Bev sang in the church choir in Ottawa. The family moved to upstate New York and Bev supported himself with insurance sales and tried his hand as a commercial radio announcer. Bev eventually moved to Chicago to announce and sing for Radio Station WMBI, owned by the Moody Bible Institute.
In 1944 when Billy Graham was planning his first musical program for the Western Springs Village Baptist Church, Billy made it his business to seek out the beautiful voice of Bev Shea for the radio program called Songs in the Night that was broadcast to many states and later many countries from the church in Western Springs. During a crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York fifty years ago in 1957, Bev introduced his version of the poem set to music that has become a very popular hymn called How Great Thou Art. In fact, it is now Bev's trademark hymn. I had the privilege of hearing him sing it in person at my grandmother's funeral at the Village Baptist Church in 1963.
By that year, Billy and Ruth had long since left Western Springs (in 1945) to travel on crusades and to return to Billy's home state of North Carolina to establish their home. But Bev and his wife and two children remained as residents of Western Springs on the Cook and Du Page County border for the next sixty-two years and still live there.
One of many amazing things about Bev Shea is that he still sings beautiful songs even at the age of 98. He is ten years older than Billy Graham. Before Ruth died, on Memorial Day weekend, C-SPAN covered the dedication of the Billy Graham Library near Charlotte, North Carolina. Billy referred to the fact that Ruth could not attend and was very ill on May 29 and had been bed ridden for six months even though she was not yet then in a coma. To my amazement, Billy's other long-time crusade associate Cliff Barrows got up and introduced Bev Shea, two years shy of one hundred years old, to lead the guests in singing How Great Thou Art. It was no half-hearted attempt to phone in a performance while a choir did the real singing. This was Bev Shea with a rich and powerful voice, certainly no longer in his prime but nevertheless singing his heart out in his personal testimony that was only a little diminished by his very advanced age.
For his personal fame and success as a singer and recording artist, Bev Shea, like his father and his friend Billy Graham, is primarily an evangelist who happens to use his singing voice as the instrument of his ministry. He has attended the Western Springs Baptist Church for six decades when not on the road and he has lived quietly in Western Springs for 62 years. Yet Bev Shea is recognized all over the world and an outstanding Illinoisan.