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W.C. Fields, SBC public relations pioneer, dies at 96

NASHVILLE (BP) — W.C. Fields, a forerunner in denominational journalism as vice president for public relations for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee from 1959-1987, died Sunday, Dec. 2, in Nashville at age 96.

As an Executive Committee vice president, Fields was the SBC’s press representative and director of Baptist Press, the convention’s news service. He also was editor of the Executive Committee’s former Baptist Program magazine from 1959-1972.

He was first listed in Who’s Who in America in 1976. Gratis, he wrote an article on Southern Baptists for Saturday Evening Post in 1983 that sold more than 1 million reprints.

In 1979, Fields was among SBC denominational leaders who found themselves in the national media when Memphis-area pastor Adrian Rogers was elected as SBC president in Houston, marking the first of successive presidencies by Southern Baptist conservatives who held to the inerrancy of the Bible.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Fields served as president of the Religious Public Relations Council, Associated Church Press and the Baptist Public Relations Association (now Baptist Communicators Association). The BCA named its annual awards competition for Fields in 1986.

Prior to joining the Executive Committee, Fields served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Yazoo City, Miss., from 1951-1956, including a term as president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, and editor of The Baptist Record newspaper of the Mississippi convention from 1956-1959.

Tim Yarbrough, editor/executive director of the Arkansas Baptist News and president of the Association of State Baptist Publications, described Fields as “a pioneer and preeminent statesman of Southern Baptist communications, whose life and ministry touched countless news and public relations professionals.”

Mike Ebert, executive director of public relations for the North American Mission Board and president of the Baptist Communicators Association, said Fields “accumulated a list of accomplishments and honors for his contributions inside and outside of Southern Baptist life. But beyond that, he was dedicated to taking younger communications professionals under his wing and allowing them to grow, gain experience and learn from him. That is something that will live on and it’s something for which he is much admired.”

A native of Saline, La., Fields (born Wilmer Clemont Fields) made a profession of faith at age 8 at Old Saline Baptist Church and a commitment to Christian vocational service at age 15, soon preaching his first sermon. At age 18, he was ordained to the ministry at First Baptist Church in in Gibsland, La., and was called to his first pastorate at Woodworth Baptist Church in Woodworth, La.

He was a graduate of Louisiana College in Pineville, subsequently earning a master’s degree in theology and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., serving in leadership roles in local churches during the course of his studies.

Fields was an author, editor or contributor for 30 books, including “Religious Public Relations Handbook,” “The Teacher’s Bible Commentary” and “The 70’s, Opportunities for Your Church.” As a churchman, he and his wife Libby served in the college Sunday School department at First Baptist Church in Nashville for 20 years.

Upon Fields’ 15th year as the SBC’s chief public relations officer, then-SBC President Jaroy Webber issued a commendation of Fields, noting, “His professional competence and his devotion to Baptist ideals have made him an effective interpreter of Southern Baptist life both to the secular press and to the Baptist press.

“Dr. Fields has stood for openness and accuracy of information and thus has gained the confidence of all those who represent the media,” Weber wrote. “The organization of the Press Room at the Southern Baptist Convention has been applauded as a model for large conventions and has been acclaimed as one of the most effective in the nation.”

The SBC newsroom continues each year to provide coverage of SBC sessions and ancillary meetings, a photo service and media workspace with streaming from the convention floor.

“The secret of good press relations anywhere is HELPFULNESS,” Fields wrote in a chapter in the 1982 Religious Public Relations Handbook of the Religious Public Relations Council. “Make it as easy and pleasant as possible for reporters to do their work. In so doing you help both causes, their journalism performance and your congregation.”

The news media “are indeed interested in your church or synagogue when you are making news,” Fields wrote. “That is their business: telling their special audiences what is new and unusual, passing along developments of special interest.”

But, he noted, “News must be new! That means that a lot of old, familiar, fine, traditional, repetitive actions and developments around the church or synagogue are not usually newsworthy, even though they may be important to the congregation.” And, he cautioned, “Too much publicity can be, at times, poor public relations.”

Fields was preceded in death by his wife Libby in 2002. He is survived by his second wife, Lawanna, a son Randall and two daughters, Christy and Rebecca; eight grandchildren and two step-grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The funeral will be at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, at Woodmont Baptist Church in Nashville.