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Mission news pioneer Bob Stanley, 86, dies

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Robert L. (Bob) Stanley, missionary and newspaperman, thought the stories of Southern Baptist missions should be reported with compelling detail, accuracy and professionalism. So he set out to make it happen.

Stanley, 86, who died Oct. 21 in Fort Smith, Ark., after an extended illness, was a veteran news reporter — editor for the Dallas Times Herald and journalism professor when he became a missionary to the Philippines in 1966. In the decades that followed, he would use all of his experience and insight to train a generation of mission communicators.

As International Mission Board (then Foreign Mission Board) director of news and information from 1977 until his retirement in 1994, Stanley greatly expanded the entity’s scope of reporting and mission storytelling. He built and trained a staff of Richmond-based writers, and, with former Baptist Press journalist Robert O’Brien, helped create a network of missionary overseas correspondents based around the world. Overseas-based missionary photographers and videographers later were added to the team.

Stanley’s ambitious efforts were launched with the encouragement of then-IMB President R. Keith Parks, elected in 1980, who saw the potential of effective storytelling in mobilizing Southern Baptists for missions.

“Bob had a rare combination of qualifications to lead” the mission reporting initiative, Parks said. “His congenial personality was wrapped around a keen mind that was focused on his task. His preparation included editorial experience on a major newspaper, teaching journalism at a nationally recognized university and international mission experience. He skillfully invested all of these elements in developing an unsurpassed press service recognized for its integrity, accuracy and effectiveness.”

Stanley and his news staff and field correspondents teamed up with the writers and photographers of the board’s magazine, The Commission (led by then-editor Leland Webb), to report on the work of missionaries in greater depth and breadth. Previously, a few editors and writers in Richmond had relied on a patchy network of enthusiastic — but mostly amateur — missionary “press representatives,” who sent in reports on mission work when they found the time.

Stanley, himself a press rep when he served as a media missionary in the Philippines with his wife Nora from 1966-76, came to the IMB staff with strong ideas about how to improve the global reporting system. He expressed them quietly, but people got the message.

“I’ll never forget the early days after Bob Stanley came to be the director of the news office,” said former IMB writer and editor Irma Duke. “I was in my 20s and quite awed by this news leader with such love for the Lord and passion for good journalism. I was editing, or maybe rewriting, a story that had come from the field. A rather important fact was missing, but this was fairly normal in those days. If the [overseas] office didn’t know the answer, or a missionary on furlough, then we went with what we had.

“But not with Bob. The news part of him immediately came to the top. He said, ‘We can’t send that out without all the information. Get the telephone number and call the press representative.’ I had never done that before. In those days, it meant finding a telephone number, hoping that it was close to the missionary’s home, and paying $9 a minute to talk. I was able to acquire the information and the story went out. The electronic age had hit the IMB news office and the quality of reporting had reached a new level.”

Anita Bowden, who eventually became IMB news director, was another rookie reporter at the time.

“I’ll always be grateful that Bob Stanley took a chance on a young woman fresh from grad school with little work experience,” Bowden said. “He taught me how to be a journalist. His professionalism and work ethic made up the standard to which I compared myself throughout my career — and often came up short.”

Art Toalston, senior editor of Baptist Press, had 10 years of newspaper reporting and education experience when he joined the IMB news staff in 1985. But Stanley, Toalston observed, “demonstrated a level of professional competence that I had never seen in any of the newspapers where I had worked.”

No excuses

If you wanted to write for him, Stanley insisted on checking facts, correcting grammar and spelling and meeting deadlines — for starters. Those basics were the writer’s responsibility before submitting a story, not the editor’s. No excuses. They were the building blocks for stories that might — with careful editing, rewriting and prayer — inspire a reader to support missions.

“He was an absolute bulldog on accuracy in articles, always insisting on checking facts and verifying everything possible,” recalled Mike Creswell, a former IMB overseas correspondent who now works with North Carolina Baptists. “He was passionate, in the best possible way, about journalism and he wanted you to be the same as you sent articles his way.”

Dan Beatty, director of IMB’s Commission Stories, said Stanley “expected and inspired the best from those who were fortunate enough to collaborate with him. To know that Bob was proud of the work that had been done was high praise, because it was not just about hitting deadlines and other professional givens, which he expected. It was seeing that the result of our work was life-changing.” 

Stanley’s stare intimidated some young reporters. The blood-red ink he used in line-by-line editing humbled many. But he had other qualities that transcended his tough editor persona. Gentleness and compassion are two mentioned by writers he trained.

“At one point in my life, difficult circumstances had pulled me out of Southern Baptist journalism,” said Mark Kelly, a longtime IMB writer and editor. “I was working 70-hour weeks at an obscure small-town newspaper in northwest Arkansas. My family was struggling, especially with finances. We needed a better provision, and I needed to get reconnected with the calling God had placed on my life.

“When a news writer position came open at IMB, Bob felt impressed to hire me, but I had completely fallen off the radar. In fact, only one person in Arkansas Baptist leadership knew where I was. Bob kept looking for me until he found that person and could track me down. He was an instrument of God’s grace and deliverance in my life at a critical time. I could never repay the debt I owe him.”

Stanley’s relationship with writers and reporters, in other words, had a higher purpose than producing good copy. Michael Chute, a former IMB overseas correspondent who is now professor of journalism at California Baptist University, benefitted from Stanley’s guidance and saw its impact on others.

“He had a keen eye for individuals and their potential, and then took raw, budding journalists and helped them grow professionally and spiritually,” Chute said. “So many in the Southern Baptist Convention’s journalism ranks, even today, can point to Bob as their friend, teacher and mentor. He always wanted the best from all of his people, all the time, and used his gentle, godly strength to pull the best from people.”

Stanley was born in Denton, Texas. A high school Latin teacher noted his affinity for writing and urged him to take a journalism class. He was immediately drawn to the world of newspapers and became a student reporter and editor in high school and college. He received the bachelor of arts degree in journalism and English at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in Denton and the master of science degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.

He started at the Dallas Times Herald as a copyreader on the telegraph desk in 1949. After a short stint in the Navy, he went back to the afternoon newspaper in 1954 as a reporter, eventually becoming assistant city news editor (the Times Herald ceased publication in 1991). Stanley returned to North Texas State as a journalism professor in 1960. He taught there for five years — and married one of his students, the former Nora Blan of McCurtain, Okla., in 1963. Three years later they were appointed missionaries to the Philippines. He served at the Baptist publication center in Manila and also did evangelistic work.

Stanley is survived by his wife, two children and two grandchildren. A memorial service was held Oct. 24 at First Baptist Church of Poteau, Okla.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges