Seminary Honors Pioneer Women Broadcasters

Two women who were likely the first in the Mennonite Church to have their own syndicated radio broadcast, called “Heart to Heart,” were honored for their pioneer work Wednesday evening (Jan. 17).

Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Ella May Miller, both of Harrisonburg, received plaques and letters of commendation during the annual “church leader appreciation banquet” held in Martin Chapel as part of the annual School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Ervin Stutzman, seminary dean and Phil N. Helmuth, executive director of development and church relations, made the presentations.

Ella May Miller(l.) and Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, at 92, were honored for their creative work in radio ministry. Photo by Jim Bishop

The ceremony featured a narrative of the development and growth of the “Heart to Heart” radio program, incorporating archival photos and sound clips. Presenters were Melodie Miller Davis, writer-producer with Mennonite Media, and Paul M. Schrock, retired Herald Press book editor who was editor of “Alive,” a publication of Mennonite Broadcasts, forerunner of Mennonite Media.

Ruth “was probably the first Mennonite woman on the airwaves with a regular program. This was truly amazing, considering what society was like in the 1950s for women, technology and the Mennonite Church,” Davis said.

The idea for the program germinated while the Stoltzfus family was living in Scottdale, Pa. Ruth Stoltzfus discussed the idea of a radio program for women with her husband, the late Grant M. Stoltzfus. They contacted a nearby station, WCVI in Connellsville, and were first told that “there’s no available time.”

But, when the station manager heard the idea, he offered Ruth a six-month contract, beginning that same week.

Heart to Heart

The program needed a name, immediately. Grant asked Ruth what she hoped to do on the broadcast, and Ruth said, “I want to share ideas, tell stories, read poetry and just talk heart to heart.”

“There’s your name – Heart to Heart,” Grant responded. On the air, she referred to herself as “Your Friend Ruth.”

The program began in June 1950, one year before the official launch of what became “The Mennonite Hour” radio program in early 1951. Heart to Heart came under the supervision of Mennonite Broadcasts, Inc., in Harrisonburg in 1956.

After leaving the broadcast, Ruth Stoltzfus continued in church ministry, pastoring Mennonite congregations in Toledo and Pandora, Ohio and Richmond, Va. She was the first woman to be ordained in Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1989 at the age of 74 and received the “distinguished service award” from EMU that same year.

Ella May Miller became “Heart to Heart” speaker in 1958 and served in that role until 1976. During this time, she wrote eight books, started Heart to Heart fellowship groups and went on numerous speaking assignments.

Although Ella May said she “had no experience in radio work, other than preparing and broadcasting a weekly Sunday school lesson WEMC-FM,” she said that “the reason the Lord used Heart to Heart so successfully was I focused on a target audience – just one woman. It made it more personable.”

John L. Horst, Jr., retired EMU physics professor and a cappella music specialist, led attendees in singing verses of the Heart to Heart theme song, “Love at Home,” to open and close the tribute.

Master of ceremonies Jim Bishop interviewed both women during the program and also interacted with Richard Weaver of Harrisonburg, who was recording engineer. The broadcasts were produced for many years in a converted chicken house on S. College Ave. in Park View.

The studio “had the best technical quality available at that time,” Weaver said. “Persons in the recording field came from as far away as Nashville and New York City to see this setup.”

‘Ministering to Each Other’

Weaver said that he “treasured the opportunity” to work with both women, not only because they were capable speakers who generated considerable audience response and requests for prayer and literature, but also because “we often wound up ministering to each other.” Weaver was recording engineer for Mennonite Broadcasts, Inc. for 25 years.

At its height, Heart to Heart was carried on 261 stations in the U.S. and Canada in 15-minute weekly and 5-minute daily versions, including Harrisonburg radio station WSVA.

The women were joined on the platform by two of their children, Kathy Stoltzfus Fairfield of Bridgewater, Va., and Ernest Miller of Minneapolis, Minn. They reflected on their mothers’ radio ministry and noted ways that they lifted stories out of their respective family situations but “used different names” in the examples.

Miller admitted, however, that as teens they coped because “we (kids) rarely listened” to their mother’s programs.

Ella May felt it was time to leave the program in 1976 and did transitional programs with a new speaker and a new program, “Your Time,” with Margaret Foth as speaker. Foth continued this program, while broadening the issues base, for another 10 years.

“These two ordinary but extraordinary Mennonite women used their natural abilities, gifts and passions to serve God and the church in some pretty creative and risky ways,” Davis said to close the tribute. “Both felt it was a privilege to have been part of this media work for the church, and those of us who still work in this arena still consider it a great privilege.

“People are still being challenged and changed. People are still encouraged, like Ruth and Ella May expressed, to experience the Jesus way of forgiving love.”