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Robert Walker: Beyond Paper and Ink

Plus: Mark Fackler remembers Walker
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Robert Alander Walker, 95, a major pioneer in Christian journalism, died Saturday, March 1, in Carol Stream, Illinois. Walker, who published the first national story on evangelist Billy Graham, had Parkinson's disease and dementia since 2005.

Walker attended the University of Illinois and Wheaton College, where he came to Christ. He earned journalism degrees from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and returned to Wheaton, where he developed a journalism program and served as an associate professor from 1941 to 1951. During this time, he helped publish HIS, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's first magazine.

"Bob was a giant in our industry," said Doug Trouten, executive director of the Evangelical Press Association (EPA) trade group. "The Christian journalism world has grown significantly since those early days, but only because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Bob Walker."

Walker took over the national magazine Church School Promoter and renamed it Sunday in 1943. In 1948, Walker acquired Christian Life & Times from friend Clyde Dennis at Good News Publications. He merged Sunday and Christian Life & Times into Christian Life. It was in Christian Life that Walker published the first national story on Graham, as well as a later piece on singer Pat Boone's Holy Spirit experience.

Walker was also active in the founding of many organizations, including the EPA, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and the Christian Booksellers Association. Walker launched Christian Bookseller, the first trade magazine targeting religious book retailers (it later became Christian Retailing). He also started Creation House, which published A New Song by Pat Boone, and Bruce Olson's Bruchko missionary biography, among many other titles. (A New Song has sold 2.5 million copies.) Walker also founded the Christian Writers Institute, from which more than 25,000 students have graduated.

In 1986, Christian Life merged with Charisma magazine and became Charisma+Christian Life, the flagship publication of Strang Communications. Walker mentored Stephen Strang, now president of Strang Communications. Ken Waters, professor of journalism at Seaver College, Pepperdine University, says the merger was a step toward bridging the gap between evangelical and charismatic Christians. "It was an action that said 'these folks are evangelicals too, [and] I'm going to bring my audience to Charisma,'" Waters told CT. "That was a public statement that spoke louder than whatever words he was saying about embracing charismatic Christians."

On the non-journalism front, Walker started Christian Life Missions, a charity that raises and donates funds to a variety of mission organizations and ministries. Seeing church attendance lagging, Walker started the International Sunday School Contest. He also partnered with architect Joe Kimball to create and provide prefabricated church buildings to help congregations grow.

Waters noted that Walker's influence went well beyond paper and ink.

"Even though we may not realize it, what he was doing in the EPA, in Christian Life, and in dialogue with Strang broadened the evangelical understanding of itself, and was key to Christian publications feeling a little more comfortable in the nondenominational evangelical world."

Tribute: The Bob Walker I Remember

By Mark Fackler

Bob Walker was always working on an idea. He had many, some of which became media companies, books, articles, magazines, movements. His idea factory was fueled by a heart electrified by the gospel and accelerated by the Spirit, for whom Bob was a steady big-league non-celebrity. Not all his ideas worked, nor did all his businesses survive. It would be like Bob to wish their demise as soon as their usefulness ended.

I met Bob in his prime, as I was starting. Bob had the good sense, as CEO of a second-tier Christian publishing company, to hire another vigorous Bob (Robert Webber, PhD, historical theology) as his acquisitions editor. The second Bob knew me as a student and aspirant, introduced me to the first Bob, and I coauthored a book for Creation House. First contracts are a rush. Indeed, I was thrilled.

The book sold pretty well, but royalties remained unpaid. After the requisite waiting period, this newbie author, together with his newbie coauthor, teamed up for one of those all-or-nothing visits, the big gamble. We asked for an appointment with Mr. Bob Walker — Mr. Christian Life, Mr. Creation House — and we told him at noonday that we had come for our money. Without a royalty check, we would like not to leave his spartan building. Would he cut a check … please?

Did those intimidating bushy eyebrows bristle? We authors were too fidgety to notice, as I recall. Yet without hesitation, a treasurer was dispatched and the check was presented. No big deal. Bob Walker may have covered the amount out of his own funds, for all I know.

Later, on a second try, Bob championed a proposal through a hardcore marketing review and published despite contrary advice. That book did well, too. I was in his debt.

Now at his passing, I discover from his list of accomplishments what he might have told me long ago. He might have said, "Listen young man, I've been around this business a lot longer than you have, met some pretty heavy sluggers, created more startups than you know, and dismantled a few that you've never heard of, and your talent is more middle-of-the-pack than you'd care to think." Or he might have said worse the day I declined to help rewrite into book form a series of sermons from one of favorite charismatic preachers because, I ventured, those sermons departed from Reformational commentaries at strategic doctrinal points.

But he was too much of a gentleman for that.

Bob Walker just kept trying, innovating, and starting-up, gathering the best people he could to expand the kingdom and the business, not caring particularly much if someone on the right or left lodged a criticism or felt his magazines were too this or that. He commanded respect. His life was discipleship, his visage unforgettable. God blessed the Spirit-power that surrounded him.

Mark Fackler is professor of communications at Calvin College and co-editor of Popular Religious Magazine of the United States.



Related Elsewhere:

Chicago Tribune, Christian Life Missions, Evangelical Press Association, and Charisma also have obituaries for Walker.

January/February
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