So much sadness has happened this week that it is difficult to know how to address it. My heart goes out to Boston and West Texas, but I don’t want to try to express what other people who are personally involved in the tragedy, have much more right to do. Instead, please note that my prayers are with them as are those of all caring Canadians. However, I do wish to express my sense of loss on the news of the deaths of two wonderful “songbirds” who had their roots here north of the border.
George Beverly Shea
Imagine living for one hundred and four years! George Beverly Shea was born in Winchester, Ontario, the town where my husband and I are lay pastors of the Baptist church. When we first arrived there almost fourteen years ago, we were told this with great pride by members of our congregation. Of course, anyone who listened to gospel music or attended one of Billy Graham’s incredible crusades would know that name immediately. We had certainly heard his musical voice on the radio and television, but never would I have expected to hear the great man sing in person. However, a few years after our service in the Winchester Baptist Church began, our choir, of which my husband and I were members, was asked to be part of a combined choir for a special tribute for Mr. Shea. Of course, we were all excited, and practiced the pieces we were to sing wholeheartedly. He was coming to Winchester because the town was going to erect a sign in honour of him.
Believe me , when the day arrived, the local arena was packed. The combined choir was seated on especially arranged bleachers and we lifted our voices joyfully in his honour. I was amazed at how robust George Beverly Shea appeared despite his ninety-some years but I thought perhaps his voice would betray his age. How wrong I was! He stood and sang “The Wonder of it All” (the hymn he had written) and I’m sure, even had he no microphone, his powerful voice would have been heard all over that arena. We have sung “The Wonder of it All” in our church many times since that day and each time we all, I am sure, remember when that elderly man filled every corner of the arena with his melodic praise. I am so glad that we were blessed with that opportunity, now that his voice has been silenced here on earth, but I know that one day we will hear it again in heaven.
Two years ago, my sister, Beverly, and I made ,what might be called, a pilgrimage to the Maritimes. Our original intention was to visit St. John’s, Nfld.-Labrador, where our late mother had been born and grown up. My sister left the planning up to me, which shows you how much she trusts me, and I immediately began looking for the best deal. We had decided on a bus trip, because we wanted to see as much of Newfoundland as we could and, besides, I’m a white-knuckle flier. Most of the bus trips seemed to spend only about a day in St. John’s which just wouldn’t suffice. I found instead, a tour that not only visited Newfoundland, but also the other three Maritime provinces and, happy day, spent two and a half days in St. John’s. I was thrilled. I called my sister and asked her if she would be able to stretch her travel budget to go for three weeks and not ten days. Bev hadn’t been to P.E. I. or Newfoundland so she consulted her purse and said yes. We were so excited, even more so because the tour included a visit to Rita McNeil’s Teahouse in Cape Breton.
Our bus arrived in Big Pond, Cape Breton, in the rain, which cleared just before our arrival at the tea room at 4 p.m. Our intrepid tour guide had called ahead to warn them of our arrival and inquired if Rita McNeil was by any chance in the neighbourhood. The reply came, that yes she was in Big Pond, although not at the Tea Room. As we disembarked from the tour bus, a buzz came back to us that Rita was, in fact, inside. Both Bev and I thought it might be just a rumour, but the big surprise was that indeed she was there, sitting quietly at a table in another room.
Sometimes, meeting a heroine or hero can be disillusioning when she or he is discovered to be not as we imagined. Sometimes our imaginations have built them up in our minds to fit their on-screen roles or on-stage presence. Not so Rita. There she sat at an ordinary tea table, only a few feet away from the room where all her honourary doctorates (there were quite a number), her Order of Nova Scotia and her Order of Canada plus numerous photos of her with other musical celebrities and yet she was as humble and gracious as she always appeared on stage. I tend to be rather shy myself and yet I felt brave enough with Ms. McNeil to give her a loving hug and ask if it was tiring to meet so many people who wanted her autograph and a few words. She smiled at me shyly and said that she just loved meeting new people, especially fans. We later discovered that when our guide, Anne, had called ahead to tell the staff we were coming, they in turn called Rita and she came right over.
I had purchased one of her C.D.’s which she kindly signed and then I wandered around admiring her signature tea cups and various other souvenirs. Rita met all the bus travellers , sweetly posed for photographs and was completely pleasant and patient. When all the hubbub subsided and the travellers sat down for their tea, I lingered nearby and enjoyed a softly sung private concert as she quietly accompanied her C.D. that was playing in the background. Bev and I sat down for a delicious cinnamon bun and tea and we both agreed that meeting Rita McNeil had been the highlight of our tour to that point. And that is why, this week, when I heard that Rita had passed on to be with the Lord, I felt as if I’d lost a lovely friend.
I was listening to the CBC’s “All In A Day” radio show, when the commentator mentioned that Rita McNeil had been interviewed when she first arrived in Ottawa in the early 1970’s and then played a tape of another interview that she had done just a year or two ago. There was Rita’s soft spoken Cape Breton lilt as she discussed her career and then the announcer at the time played the first song she had ever written, called “Song of the Working Man” all about going down into the mines. The powerful, melodic voice that harmonized with the choral group, Men of the Deeps” was such a contrast to the quiet humble woman, that it really was an amazing contrast. Rita, you will be greatly missed, but fortunately for us, your songs will go on.