GA: Marj Carpenter was “born to be a reporter”

Near the end of her remarks at the Presbyterian Writers Guild (PWG) luncheon June 26, Marj Carpenter said, “I like to write so much that I feel sorry for people who never get to write.”

With those words, Carpenter, winner of the PWG’s 2008 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award, spoke vicariously for all of those Presbyterian writers — whether aspiring, practicing, published, or award-winning — who had gathered to honor her body of work. Among the writers present who stood to be recognized were previous Angell Award winners Jack Barden and Steve McCutchan, and 2004 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award winner, Eva Stimson.

(Outlook readers also know Marj as the writer of the “In this corner” and “Presbyterians in action” features in the magazine.)

Upon receiving her award, which she singled out as “very special” amidst the “closet-full” she has already received, Carpenter regaled the group with colorful, homespun stories of her coming of age as a journalist in West Texas. “My dad said I was born to be a reporter,” she said, “My mother argued with that and told me she’d only pay my way to college if I majored in music, so I majored in music. She thought I was going to be a concert pianist and it’s a good thing she was wrong, because I would have been a terrible one.”

Carpenter, who recognized her journalistic aspirations at the age of four, later went on to graduate — in accordance with her mother’s wish — with a degree in music. She took up reporting beginning with the Corpus Christi Caller and later with The Pecos Independent. Carpenter described a seasoned career in which she interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt, received death threats for reporting on the Billie Sol Estes agriculture scandal, contributed reporting to Life magazine, the Associated Press, The New York Times, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She joined the Presbyterian Church as director of the Presbyterian News Service in 1978, serving for 15 years until her retirement in 1993.

“When I first went to work for the church, I didn’t know whether I was going to make it the first month. I was bored,” she said to hearty laughter. “I always covered wrecks and fires and murders, train crashes and plane crashes and politicians. And there I was covering something called the Mission Design Committee.”

When he introduced Carpenter, Jerry Van Marter, coordinator of the Presbyterian News Service, reminded the audience that during those past 30 years, Carpenter has visited more than 600 mission stations in 130 countries. Her two books on Presbyterian mission, To the Ends of the Earth and And a Little Bit Farther have been top sellers for the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Carpenter went on to be elected moderator of the 207th General Assembly (1995). Van Marter dubbed her “the best-known and most-loved Presbyterian in the world.”

Another highlight of the luncheon was the presentation of the 2007 Angell Award to Mary Frances Chupick Bennett, author of Invitation to Cat Spring: From European Tyranny to Freedom to Civil War, which was described in the PWG’s newsletter as “a thoroughly researched and engaging historical novel.” The Angell Award is awarded each year by the Presbyterian Writers Guild in recognition of the best first book by a Presbyterian author for that year. The award — which was established by the family of the Rev. Jim Angell after his death to carry on his love of supporting writers — is for support of any Presbyterian author.

Bennett, who was introduced by a previous Angell Award winner, Steve McCutchan, spoke of her call to trace and to write the story of her own Moravian roots through the eyes of the composite character of Rosina, and the saga of two families’ emigration from Europe to central Texas. Before a transfixed audience, Bennett transformed herself into Rosina — ducking behind the podium to don a patterned headscarf and black shawl — to embody and express the immigrant’s experience.

The 30th annual event, which was hosted by PWG past president, Kathy Bostrom standing in for president Cathy Cummings Chisholm, opened with a spirited, if tearful, rendition of the Presbyterian Writers Guild Hymn, written 15 years ago by Vic Jameson, who died on May 18, 2008, at the age of 83. Jameson, who served as associate director, director, and managing director of the Presbyterian Office of Information from 1964-1983, was also editor of Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today).

Van Marter told of Jameson’s last day of work at the Presbyterian Center as he retired in 1991. “Vic stopped by and left me a little placard,” he said. “On it was printed a statement by Walt Whitman, ‘Journalism is the last refuge of the vaguely talented.’ I treasure it as Vic’s own gospel truth.”