After all these years, I can still hear in my mind Uncle Charlie’s voice. Or I should say voices. Uncle Charlie used different ones when reading stories, switching back and forth between narrator and characters. And each voice was recognizable.
Uncle Charlie is not my uncle; we’re not related at all. I’ve never even met him. But as a child, I knew him through the radio programming of Children’s Bible Hour, or CBH Ministries, which later became Keys for Kids Ministries.
When I was a kid, my bedtime routine included tuning in to the Christian radio station, WPEL. After the first drama there was a shorter syndicated program, “Keys for Kids.” In that program, Charlie VanderMeer, known to his audience as “Uncle Charlie,” read object lesson stories that applied biblical principles to children’s everyday lives.
Those stories came from back issues of the “Keys for Kids” children’s devotional booklet published every other month by the organization.
Both the booklet and program are still being produced today but it’s been a long time – years – since I thought about Uncle Charlie and his “Keys for Kids.” It all came back to me Friday evening through a Facebook post. I noticed several of my friends all shared the same article, so I stopped scrolling to check it out.
“‘Uncle Charlie’ from ‘Children’s Bible Hour’ dies,” read the headline.
VanderMeer died Friday, Feb. 22 at age 84, according to several news outlets in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Keys for Kids Ministries is based.
His biography on the Keys for Kids Ministries website states, “when he was nine years old, Charlie was picked out of a studio audience by then host, ‘Uncle Mel Johnson’ to participate in a live broadcast of Children’s Bible Hour. From there he went on to a regular spot in the program, reading from “Charlie’s Scrapbook,” reciting poems, helping in the dramatized stories and often serving as ‘junior emcee.’”
He left the program at age 17 to attend college and returned in 1956 with a major in radio and television production. He filled various roles in the organization since then, and continued as the voice of “Keys for Kids” until a few years ago.
VanderMeer’s story reminds me a little of my own, and in a way, they are connected.
From as early an age as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer. But it was at 11 that I started to get serious about the craft. And it was the stories I heard Uncle Charlie read on the radio that inspired me to write what became my first two paid published works ever that same year.
After regularly listening to and reading “Keys for Kids” for some time, I started noticing object lessons in life around me, similar to those in the stories. So, I decided to write them down.
First I wrote a short, nonfiction piece, which, with the help of my mom, I sent off to a Sunday school take-home paper called “Live Wire.” I checked the mail with anxiety and eagerness every day, awaiting the return of my self-addressed stamped envelope. I was aware that inside would likely be a rejection slip. Then one day I opened the mailbox and saw my handwriting at the top of the stack. To my surprise and euphoria, there was no letter inside; just a check for $20 - my first ever paycheck.
The second object lesson I wrote down was a fiction piece in the same format as “Keys for Kids.” I sent this story to CBH Miniseries itself. Once again when the SASE came back a couple months later, there was a $20 check inside.
Looking back almost 20 years later, I can draw lines from those first published works to where I am today. They gave me the confidence I needed when it came time to choose a college major and I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to go into writing.
I don’t know if I would have considered studying journalism and pursuing a career in this field, were it not for that initial inspiration from “Keys for Kids.”
So thank you, Uncle Charlie, for the bedtime stories.
Until we meet.
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