Best known for his "I Fire Writers" ads, Norm Rohrer is a past executive secretary of EPA, and is the founder of the Christian Writer's Institute. In this interview, he recalls the early days of EPA.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by telephone March 7, 1997. Norm Rohrer spoke from his home in California. He was Executive Secretary of the Evangelical Press Association from 1965-78. He founded the Christian Writer's Guild, later owned by Jerry Jenkins, and may be best known for his "I Fire Writers" ads.
Q: How did you first get involved with the Evangelical Press Association?
Rohrer: In 1958 I was hired to start World Vision magazine. Larry Ward got involved about that time with EPA as executive secretary, now called executive director. He got so busy he would often ask me to write the news service back in 1964. In 1965 I went to freelance, and then I was on the EPA board in 1965. Larry left and I was named executive secretary at that time, and I served until 1978 at a convention in Arrowhead Springs, California.
Larry served I guess from '57 to '65. He started Liaison (the EPA newsletter) and embellished the news service. It made significant gains under Larry Ward. Then the conventions came along.
The conventions were much more in-grown. We used our own guys. In 1964 in Philadelphia we branched out to bring in Frank Laubach, and that was a milestone. We all were amazed, this fine man of linguistic training would come and speak to our convention. Imagine that. We kept reaching out to others.
Q: What function did EPA serve in the early days?
Rohrer: A big reason was fellowship. That moved then to a clearinghouse for gathering staff. We reached out through EPA. Young people would apply and get jobs through EPA. They would apply, [the EPA newsletter] Liaison would carry their name and address, and the editors would respond. The big postal problem, in the early '70s, rates were going up, that galvanized the group, brought us together. Russ Hitt was at the forefront of that for EPA. He used to go to Washington a lot. I remember him saying once that the city was shut down for Watergate, and it was hard to see anybody.
Q: How about doctrinal and political differences within the group?
Rohrer: The doctrinal differences were never a major bone of contention. I think the Reformed and Assemblies got together and just enjoyed seeing each other. There was a little flap. Woody [Sherwood] Wirt's son was a Marine in Vietnam, and in '68 in Minneapolis, Woody got up and made a pitch for Vietnam which wasn't well-received, I remember. Other people thought it was an immoral war and shouldn't be waged, but he had a son over there.
Politically, [former Executive Director] Gary Warner and I are the best of friends, but politically we're probably opposite, but all that's forgotten. It's great. I think that's a strong point of EPA.
It was something of an astonishment to us Mennonites to see the Reformed people drink a glass of alcohol now and then. The Christian Reformed smoked cigars.
Q: Were EPA members people with journalistic backgrounds?
Rohrer: During my time colleges and Bible schools were coming on with journalism majors, and people were looking to journalism as a calling. That was different.
Q: What do you suppose was responsible for that change?
Rohrer: We were just about 10 years behind in our graphics and our presentation of editorial fare. Color came in and new methods of reporting. New young people in the group were ambitious. I just think the colleges and universities saw that and opened up majors, and young people took them up on it. They presented themselves to EPA and it was great.
Q: Do you suppose EPA was leading the change or responding to it?
Rohrer: EPA was a response to what was happening. New techniques of printing, web-fed came in during the '60s, all that. Color was added. I think the young people drove it. I don't think EPA ran up a flag and said. "Let's increase the status of journalism and call for young people to join us." I think it was the other way around. Young people were looking to careers in journalism and wondering how they could serve, and here was EPA in gear, so we started scholarships, that was well received. People, editors saw the need for that, denominations got behind it.
In 1949 Wheaton College introduced a writing major. It wasn't well received, it was a little too early. I took it, but I think there were only three of us. They dropped it and changed it to a communications major.
Bob Walker, in 1948 and '49 he was teaching in Wheaton, and he bought, what was it called? The old Sunday Times? He bought it and renamed it Christian Life. Everybody was so excited. It was like reading Time magazine. It was on the map as good writing. Bob had a critical part to play.