Montreat, NC-- George Beverly Shea, the beloved soloist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for nearly 60 years, was once asked about his legacy.
Shea replied he hoped he would be remembered as always being on key.
The quip encapsulates Shea's signature mix of humor and humility celebrated Sunday during the gospel singer's funeral in Montreat, N.C. - a lively service punctuated more by laughter than tears.
STORY: George Beverly Shea dies; sang with Billy Graham
The Rev. Billy Graham was one of nearly 1,000 attendees at the Anderson Auditorium. He was escorted by son, Rev. Franklin Graham. His grandson, Rev. William Franklin F. Graham IV, vice president and executive director of Billy Graham Training Center, gave the benediction.
Shea, a key part of the Graham ministry since the mid-1940s, died Tuesday night at Asheville's Mission Hospital after suffering a stroke. He was 104. A private interment service is set for Monday at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.
Billy Graham did not speak during the service but talked about Shea, known for his rich, uplifting voice, in a written statement. Graham said he has listened to Shea sing for more than 70 years and would still rather hear him sing than anyone else.
The evangelist praised Shea's faith and his contribution to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
"I have lost one of the best friends I have ever had, but he and I look forward to seeing each other in heaven relatively soon," Graham said.
Shea preformed gospel classics - as well as his original work like "The Wonder of It All" - before Graham took the stage to minister.
Shea, then a fast-rising star on Chicago radio, was more well-known than Graham when they met in 1943. The association credits Shea with drawing the early crowds. Together, they spent decades traveling the world ministering.
Shea held the Guinness Book of World Records title for performing before the most people - more than 220 million - during his career. He also recorded some 500 vocal solos and 70 albums, and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy Association in 2011.
Shea's son, Ron, praised his father's love of people - an attribute that defined even his last days.
In the last week of his life, Shea's family took turns spending time with him, "so he would never be alone, so he would always have someone to talk to," Ron Shea said. "And we loved doing it because he had so many stories."
His love of people is what prevented Shea, who was born in Winchester, Ontario, on Feb. 1, 1909, from pursuing his boyhood dream of becoming a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A member of the mounted police from Ottawa, in full regalia, accompanied Shea's casket Sunday as a representative of the Canadian government, Ron Shea said.
"He would have loved that," his son said. "He wanted to be a (mounted police officer) himself, but he often said he didn't go through with it because he thought he would be put up in Yellowknife (Northwest Territories) and he would never see civilization again."
Shea, however, did still retreat to the Canada wilderness - partly for access to his favorite Tim Hortons coffee brand.
For 50 years, he maintained a simple cabin, made just of plywood, in the Canadian forest, and would visit often though not during the winter, Ron Shea said.
"I thought about it just the other day (about how the) simplicity of the structure of that building helped it survive all these years in the Canadian woods," Ron Shea said. "That's what dad's life was. He was simple. He loved the Lord. He knew music, he loved singing praises and we loved him for it."
Cliff Barrows, a longtime associate of Billy Graham who introduced Shea to the crusade crowds, noted his innate ability.
Before a performance, Shea would sometimes be moved to change the song program. With no way of alerting the musicians, he devised a signaling system, Barrows said. He would lift a finger up or down to indicate flat or sharp keys.
"What a precious, precious man," said Barrows, who was the ministry's music and program director. He recalled in recent years, meeting with Shea regularly on Tuesdays, and talking between sips of coffee about his interests, including organs.
His first live performance at age 16 was at the feet of an organ. As an adult he collected them, at one point boasting as many as eight in his home. One organ was so large the pipes traveled the distance of his basement. Another was brought to the Montreat auditorium for the service.
Music was a foundation of the celebration, from congregational hymns to playing recorded Shea songs, including "The Lord's Prayer" and "The Holy City."
But "twinkle in his eye" was possibly the true chorus of the service. Or maybe "gentle giant."
"This gentle giant, he was a strong man physically," Barrows said. "He was a man, with big bones ... you couldn't put your fingers around his wrists. He was a big strong man, and he was strong in heart. He left a big legacy."