16 September 2011

An Amazing Life

by Phil Johnson

Norm Sper (1925--2011)
Norm Sper (1925--2011)

orm Sper went to heaven Wednesday night.

You may never have heard of Norm before, but you probably owe him more than you realize. I certainly owe him more than I could ever repay.

Norm lived an amazing life. Born in Hollywood, CA in 1925, he was surrounded by sports and show business. Norm's father, Norman L. Sper, Sr., was a celebrated WWI war correspondent and hero who later starred in and produced "Football this Week," one of the earliest successful syndicated sports television programs. Norm's mother, Winona Winter, was a well-known vaudevillian and early film actress. Will Rogers was Norm's godfather.

Norm showed outstanding athletic and academic promise very early, and he left home as a teenager to attend prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. After high school he received an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis but chose instead to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he led the UNC swimming and diving team, setting NCAA records with his diving and backstroke performances. Norm was a four-time first-team All-American (1947-1950), the first in UNC history. He was chosen for the United States' Olympic diving team, but because of World War II the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled, so Norm never swam or dived as an Olympian, though he was arguably the best diver in the world through most of the 1940s.

During those years at UNC, Norm repeatedly was elected as head cheerleader. The position perfectly suited his upbeat and always optimistic personality. He is remembered to this day in Chapel Hill as one of UNC's most popular cheerleaders ever.

In fact, Norm's longest-lasting contribution at UNC was the Victory Bell—the famous trophy that goes annually to the victor in the UNC-Duke football rivalry. Norm got the bell from an old steam train. His counterpart at Duke, cheerleader Loring Jones, mounted it on a cart. The bell is one of the oldest, most famous rivalry-trophies in college football.

Norm at the 1950 Cotton Bowl
UNC blocking back Joe Kosinski gets a pep talk from two of Carolina's top supporters at the 1950 Cotton Bowl: Arden Boisseau (left), Carolina's coed princess in the Cotton Bowl Beauty court, and Head Cheerleader Norm Sper. Taken in late December 1949 in Dallas, TX, leading up to the 1950 Cotton Bowl game between Carolina and Rice on January 2, 1950. [From the Hugh Morton Collection of Photographs and Films]

With his Hollywood roots and world-class swimming expertise, Norm naturally made friends of people like Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams. He once showed me (reluctantly, and at some else's behest) a photograph of the three of them laughing together at a party. Norm never boasted about his athletic achievements. I never heard him talk about the glory of his college athletic triumphs. If anyone ever brought up the subject, he blushed and downplayed it.

After college, Norm emerged as a gifted entrepreneur, both creative and successful in practically everything he ever did. He became an Amway distributor in the formative years of that company and his Amway business quickly grew sufficiently that he was able to retire early.

Then Norm started a business called "On-the-Spot Duplicators." He would record convention speeches, making cassette copies on the spot and selling them to attendees within minutes after the end of each session. Once that business became prosperous, Norm sold it and entered the second phase of his "retirement."

All those were fine achievements and certainly would have been more than enough for the typical person to feel an inflated sense of accomplishment. But Norm's greatest, most far-reaching contribution came after that second retirement.

Norm was the founder of the "Grace to You" radio program.

As one of the elders of Grace Community Church in the mid 1970s (when John MacArthur's teaching ministry was just beginning to attract notice outside southern California), Norm was convinced John's teaching needed to be on the radio, so he approached John with the idea. Here's how John MacArthur remembers it:
Norm Sper came to me one time and said, "We ought to be on the radio."

And I said, "Well, that's great. Why don't you do that? Why don't you pray about that and pursue that ministry if God has brought you to that?"

The truth is, John MacArthur at first had very low expectations and a low level of enthusiasm for the project. Norm had no prior experience in radio. No one who actually worked in Christian radio seemed excited about the idea. Virtually everyone in radio whom Norm had talked to had tried to discourage him. From a rational and business perspective, the whole idea seemed impossibly fraught with negatives. Plus, John MacArthur made it clear from the outset that he had no time to sit in a studio and record a half-hour broadcast each day.

No problem, Norm said. He intended to air the sermons anyway. He would edit them into half-hour segments to make the broadcasts feasible.

That was the chief element of the plan that practically everyone with any expertise in the industry said was unworkable. They insisted the only way to be successful with a daily Bible-teaching program was to speak directly to the radio audience from a studio, the way J. Vernon McGee did it. Airing a sermon wouldn't do. Half a sermon was an infinitely worse idea, they said.

But Norm persisted. After a couple of short-lived attempts at buying time on secular stations (adjacent to a horse-racing broadcast, in one case) the first regular daily broadcasts of Grace to You in its current format began in 1978—launching simultaneously in Tampa, Tulsa, and Baltimore.

The first paid staff members of GTY
The first paid staff members of Grace to You: (L to R) Norm Sper, Dana Way, Rick Draa

The GTY Staff in 1982
The Grace to You Staff in 1982 (L to R): Dave Enos, Dawn Marcellino, Hal Hays, Rose Stoeppler, Dave Sper, Laura Forbes, Norm Sper, Rick Draa, Jean Mueller, Rich Thompson

By the time I came to work at Grace to You in 1983, the ministry's foundation was already solid and the ministry was growing steadily. Norm retired again sometime around 1989 or '90, finally for the last time. Declining health in the past decade seemed to heap difficulty upon difficulty for Norm and his family, and though we will miss him terribly, we rejoice that he has entered the presence of Christ, whom he loved and served so faithfully.

Norm Sper was one of the gentlest, humblest souls I have ever met. My entire career and life's work were made possible by him. I'm grateful every day for his faithfulness. I can't wait to be reunited with him in heaven.

"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!" (Revelation 14:13).

Phil's signature


Joan said...

Thank you for sharing this account of a faithful man of God.

Robert said...

Thanks, Phil. I think many of us can say that we have greatly benefitted from the work that he did during his life. I feel much joy knowing that such a man is resting in the presence of the Lord.

donsands said...

Thanks for posting this. Never knew of this brother. Look forward to seeing him in glory.
It's encouraging to read how our Savior worked within him.

"...launching simultaneously in Tampa, Tulsa, and Baltimore."

I's so glad John was on the radio in Baltimore when I was quickened back in 1984.

My word verification: spers

Michael Lawmaster said...

Thanks Phil for the post.

Thank you Norm for your labor of love for the Lord Jesus Christ. May the God of all grace and comfort strengthen Norm's family.

Nora said...

My father was convicted and consequently saved while listening to John McArthur on the radio. My father went on to be a pastor and has led quite a few people to Christ, including myself. It's fascinating to see the "within the story" links that bring a person to salvation. God is so truly good.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful tribute. Thank you, Phil.

Michael T. said...

Thank God for this man's life and ministry. It inspires me to hear how the Lord can start with one man and bless so many. I often hear people mention how their kids are Rush babies. I consider myself a Grace to You baby from the 80's. My Kids now listen with me. I pray God's comfort for his family and friends.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Thanks for sharing the story of GTY's origins. I've been blessed by GTY as have so many thousands of others.

GW said...

What a great legacy! These days most radio ministries use the GTY format though I am sure that is not what they call it nor would they be willing to give GTY or its layman founder the credit. It is by far superior to the radio preacher "Reverend IKE" model.

Marla said...

Thank you for posting this, Phil. GTY has been one of the biggest influences in my spiritual growth. I'm thankful for Norm --- Well done, good and faithful servant.

Randy Talley said...

Thank you, Phil. I still remember conversations I had with Norm when we met at a GTY Radio Bible Conference in the early 80s. I've thought about him often since then, and wondered how he was doing. Hearing John bring up Fred Barshaw's name in your Q&A at the TMC recently brought back memories as well.

Thank you for the update. I'll be praying for his family

Sharon said...

I remember Norm well! In fact, all the faces in that 1982 photo were good GCC friends. Such memories. Such outfits! Such hairdos!

Phil Johnson said...

Sharon: I may call you later so I can put a proper caption on that picture. I believe I know all those faces except one, but I'd be afraid to mislabel it. I'll give you a call around 9:00 to compare notes.

Cherie said...

Phil, thank you so much for posting this...also the phone call yesterday!

Sharon said...

@Phil Please call my cell phone (Catherine has it) as I "telecommute" in the mornings. I hope I can help--if not, I may be able to find someone who can. I'm lousy when it comes to remembering names. . . .

AmandaE said...

Great story Phil. Thanks for sharing about the faithfulness of a brother in Christ.

Dawn Marcellino said...

Phil, thank you for highlighting the service, gifts and humility with which Norm glorified his God. I worked with him for two years (in the 1982 picture) and knew little of what you shared beyond the kind, energetic and always happy man who gave GTY vision.

The Way's World said...

Thank you, Phil, for sharing these words about a man who greatly influenced my life. He was, apart from my husband, Ron, the greatest man I have ever worked for. He gave the Lord the glory and prayed for His guidance. Praying with him and Rick Draa in the mornings before we began our work was a great highlight of our day at GTY. He taught me volumes about living for the Lord and trusting Him for guidance.

The Way's World said...

Norm was an extraordinary man who trusted the Lord and lived his life to glorify Him. He was a wonderful example to all of us who were associated with GTY in the early days. Our early morning minutes were spent in prayer for both the words from John Mac on the program and for our answers to the many inquiries. Our prayers were for ourselves also that we would always trust the Lord for direction in our own lives.

carolyn_ott said...

I worked for Grace to You in the mid-80s. Norm was a gentle, humble soul. He once approached my desk doing a tap dance. A very talented, Fred Astaire-esque shuffle. I asked him where he learned to dance like that. He blushed when he realized what he had done. He told me his mom had been on stage, and he grew up learning how to dance. I wanted to know more, but he went on to business. He was an brilliant idea man who loved people and loved serving God. So glad he's with Him now!

Kevin Schaub said...

Praise the Lord! Thanks for this article. GTY had a tremendous impact on my life in college. Before that, I don't recall hearing an expositional sermon, let alone someone who would show me so much in the text. Thankful for Norm.

~Mark said...

What an encouraging memorial. It's a blessing to see the impact one faithful individual can have, especially in this instance, the part about no one in Christian radio really thinking that his idea would work.

May we all leave such a bold, yet humble, legacy.

P. Trey Rhodes said...

God will use is if we just get useable. Norm truly let God use Him to touch quickened hearts like mine. So much of what I have become (the good, that is) is because of Grace to You and Norm's tenacity to get it on the air. I used to listen to Grace to You from Guam when a missionary in Swaziland, Africa. It was like a little touch of home during those years on the mission field back in the 80's. Thank you Norm. Enjoy your reward!

steve said...

Phil: Thanks for this informative tribute to Norm Sper. As you say, he never spoke about his past accomplishments--I worked under him at GTY from March '83 onward and wasn't aware of much of what's written here.

His enthusiasm for the work at GTY was contagious. Many of us can be grateful he persisted in spite of the low expectations of those around him.

With continued appreciation for all GTY does to exalt our Lord and extend His kingdom.

Anonymous said...

I never knew this guy, but you've made me feel like it was my loss and showed me your your joy at his service for the Lord. Grace and Peace to you and to his loved ones and friends.