The Great Don Wildmon

September 19, 2010

Don Wildmon (with wife Lynda by his side) accepts the James Dobson Vision and Leadership Award.

“We’re here tonight to honor the great Don Wildmon.”

That’s how emcee Gil Mertz introduced last night’s gala banquet at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that the guest of honor didn’t want anyone calling him great. 

It’s not his style. 

Even though he was one of the original “culture warriors” along with Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and Phyllis Schlafly, probably his is the least known of all those names. But last night we were reminded by Dick Bott, James Dobson, Chuck Colson and Janet Parshall of the hugely important role he played in the movement to rally religious and cultural conservatives. 

The funny thing is, it all happened in Mississippi. 

I can say that because a) we live in Mississippi, and b) that point was made a number of times last night. Don Wildmon started his crusade at a small Methodist church in Mississippi. In fact, it started when he challenged his congregation to a “Turn Off Your TV” week. The press picked up on it, word spread, and a movement started. So one day Don called a press conference at his church and from his pulpit announced the founding of the National Federation for Decency, which later became the American Family Association.

Eventually he moved to the big city of Tupelo. It’s all relative, I know, but Tupelo is the biggest city in northeast Mississippi. So he came to Tupelo and found some space in a nondescript building in what amounts to an industrial park. Little by little they rented and then purchased more and more space. In the early 1980s Don went on the Phil Donohue Show, which was a really big deal back then. Later he appeared on the Today show and the Tomorrow show (among others), and was interviewed by many major media outlets. He organized boycotts to persuade Hollywood to clean up its act. Some worked, some didn’t, but as he said last night, “You win some and you lose some.»

Then came radio and it turned out that Don Wildmon was a very savvy businessman. He built more stations in a shorter period of time than any other broadcaster. Today there are almost 200 stations in the American Family Radio network. Then came the Internet and Don was out front on that too. Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council said, “We flew down to Tupelo to find out what they knew about the Internet.” That was about 15 years ago. 

So now the American Family Association has well over 2 million names on its email list plus millions of listeners to the radio network plus live streaming on the Internet plus they sponsor the online news service called OneNewsNow. 

All that by a pastor from Mississippi who felt God calling him to make a difference in the culture.

Last year Don almost died from a mosquito bite that gave him St. Louis Encephalitis. He was also diagnosed with cancer behind his left eye. After weeks in the hospital and months of rehab, he has slowly but not completely recovered. A while back he handed over the leadership of AFA to his son Tim.

It’s all pretty amazing.

Last night Don mustered the strength (he moves slowly these days) to speak to the banquet audience. He wanted us to know that it was no big deal, really. He just tried to follow God’s call and he kept on going for over 30 years. The people who know him well speak of his bulldog tenacity. 

As I said, he’s from Mississippi and most of the people who work at AFA are from Mississippi. That fact was mentioned by several speakers. I don’t think Don ever cared one way or the other. He’s comfortable in his own skin, and it’s didn’t matter what Phil Donohue thought about his accent. 

As Tony Perkins said at the end of the banquet, “Who would have thought you could change the world from Tupelo, Mississippi?”

Good question.

Don Wildmon never started out to change the world. But that’s what he did. He changed the world from Tupelo, Mississippi.

And that’s why they called him “the great Don Wildmon” last night. 

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