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Ken Wales’ 19-year sense of call yielded ‘Christy,’ media openness

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–A 19-year sense of call culminated with the 1995 CBS television series that broke new ground in portraying the importance of faith, the producer of the “Christy” series told participants in the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference April 5.

“I hope for your sakes and God’s sake it doesn’t take you that long,” Ken Wales told the 140 people attending the five-day conference at Ridgecrest, a LifeWay conference center in North Carolina.

Wales, a film producer and faculty member at the University of Southern California’s school of cinema, urged participants to “write for your soul and your spirit. Lives are changed by what you do.”

Wales said “Christy,” based on the late Catherine Marshall’s book about her mother’s role as a teacher in a rural east Tennessee cove, opened the door to stories of faith on network television.

“It was the first series in prime time where a hero or heroine did what she did because of what she believed, because of her faith. As a result, other programs such as ‘Touched by an Angel’ were possible,” Wales said.

He traced his 19-year struggle to make a feature movie based on the book, beginning with efforts to buy film rights from MGM studios. In the next 11 years, MGM changed hands 18 times as Wales made contact with one executive after another.

He met Catherine Marshall who “believed I was an answer to prayer,” Wales recalled. She had despaired of the studio ever releasing the movie rights.

“I went through two mortgages on my house and was just about out of money,” Wales said. “I still somehow knew that Christy had to happen.”

In the late 1980s, through the intervention of a friend, Wales finally was able to purchase the film rights to “Christy” for three times the amount he had envisioned. In 1990, he turned down an invitation from CBS to produce “Christy” as a television series.

“My vision was a feature film,” he said. When he was contacted again by CBS in 1992, Wales reconsidered.

“I was giving up my dream of the big film and turning the answer over to God, to let go and let something else happen,” Wales said. “I gave up my plan so God’s greater plan could happen.”

He began to see how God had been at work through the 19 years when he realized “Christy” star Kelli Martin had been “born the same month I started to read and work on ‘Christy.’ She had to be born and to grow up to play Christy.”

Response to the series also illustrated God’s plans were greater than Wales’ as 42 million people tuned in, “10 times the number who would ever have seen the story as a feature film.”

Wales deflects credit for his efforts, pointing instead to God, to Marshall and to Christy.

“It’s their story,” he said. “I was simply a steward.”

The writers conference included workshops on writing fiction, inspirational books and articles, films and other styles. Sessions provided help in working with a literary agent, managing time to write and getting published.

In a concluding dialogue session, 87-year-old Billie Gregory of Black Mountain, N.C., expressed appreciation for negative feedback she had received from a faculty member concerning something she had written.

“I took it home, tore it up and started over. That’s what we must do,” Gregory said.

In response to a question about breaking into the film industry, Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission based in Camarilla, Calif., urged being willing to start at the bottom.

“A lot of kids from the Christian community stoop to conquer,” Baehr said. “The people who do well are the people who keep their values and commitment to Christ.”

Elaine Wright Colvin, author, writing coach and founder of Writer’s Information Network, said the key to becoming a published writer is hard work, practicing the principles of good writing and prayer.

“Get five to 10 people who will commit to pray for your writing ministry regularly,” said Colvin, of Bainbridge Island, Wash. “Get those people behind you and God will reward your effort.”

The 2001 conference will be held April 1-5 at Ridgecrest.

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  • Linda Lawson