I thought you might be intrigued by the following (and there’s a family connection for me – my dad wrote the preface):
This I Believe: Philadelphia
My Dad and This I Believe
This I Believe is a Philadelphia story. That is where my father, Ward Wheelock, took a powerful idea and, based in Philadelphia, brought This I Believe to countless millions throughout America and globally.
Dad lived in the Philadelphia area his entire life, except for his time at Cornell and serving in World Wars I & II. The seed of This I Believe was planted at the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr. My mother cut out a Joseph Fort Newton article from the 1949 Easter Sunday church program. Five days later my mother died.
I was amazed by the impact that this Newton article had on Dad. He had it inscribed on plaques that he gave to me, my sister, and my brother. That was just the start of how Dad transformed Newton’s words into a memorial to my mother by creating This I Believe:
We must take time, take pains, have a plan, form spiritual habits, if we are to keep our souls alive; and now is the time to begin….The same hard knocks come to him as to others, but he reacts to them by the central law of his life. He suffers deeply, but he does not sour. He knows frustration, but he goes right on in his kindness and faith. He sees his own shortcomings, but he does not give up, because a power rises up from his spiritual center and urges him to the best. Joseph Fort Newton
Dad, a dynamic Philadelphia advertising executive, lived his personal credo: “Don’t ask why, ask why not?” He also profoundly believed in the power of an idea. (In 1953, his idea about international fellowships led to the creation of Eisenhower Fellowships, which, headquartered in Philadelphia, is still flourishing more than six decades later.)
Dad often spoke with me about how everyone has beliefs that affect his or her lives. He was convinced that there was a vast audience that would be eager to hear and be affected by the personal beliefs of others. He was clear that this would not be a religious program, though individuals could express their religious beliefs. At the outset, Dad assumed that people would express a belief in a Supreme Being. His only absolute guideline was that beliefs must reflect what a person believed in, not what he/she was against.
In 1949 Dad began exploring his idea of a radio program about beliefs with dozens of his Philadelphia friends and colleagues. They provided a sounding board that more sharply honed what swiftly began to emerge as This I Believe. A critical catalyst was Donald Thornburgh, general manager of WCAU, then Philadelphia’s CBS TV and radio station. Thornburgh volunteered to pioneer This I Believe on WCAU.
Dad had met Edward R. Murrow in London during World War II. Subsequently, when Murrow returned to the United States, Dad hired Murrow to air his first nightly CBS news program. (Murrow, a person of strong convictions, only permitted Campbell Soup—my Dad’s principal advertising account– ads at the start and conclusion of his evening broadcasts.) Murrow was captivated by the This I Believe concept. He volunteered to be the host of a daily This I Believe radio program, each episode of which would focus on a person reading his or her essay about their core beliefs. A major obstacle was to persuade CBS to broadcast these commercial-free, five-minute programs on its national radio network.
Dad, Murrow, and Thornburgh met with William Paley, the head of CBS, who was, himself, a native Philadelphian (indeed, CBS had been based in Philadelphia in its early years before moving to New York). Dad told me that, initially, Paley was a hard sell. Ultimately, Paley agreed that Thornburgh could test the Murrow-introduced programs on his Philadelphia CBS radio station.
The initial public response was stunning. Soon This I Believe was a regular feature on the entire CBS radio network, reaching 39 million listeners weekly. Dad ran the This I Believe operation from his Ward Wheelock Company office in the Lincoln-Liberty Building, adjacent to what once was the Philadelphia National Bank Building. A small editorial staff in New York oversaw the editing and recording of the actual programs.
Philadelphians provided a number of the initial essays that were broadcast. Some were included in the first This I Believe book, which was published by Simon and Schuster in 1952 and became, excluding the Bible, the best-selling nonfiction book of the year. This I Believe, while national, was also local. One of the young staffers in Dad’s office suggested his dentist as a likely essayist. Thus a Philadelphia dentist joined hundreds of distinguished national individuals as a This I Believe contributor.
I was away at school, and then college, while Dad expanded the power of his Idea nationally and internationally. I experienced some of Dad’s enthusiastic conviction when I accompanied him on a visit with Louis Selzer (editor of The Cleveland Press) in Cleveland and then, in 1953, to have tea with Professor Gilbert Murray in Oxford. Selzer’s essay was included in the first book. Professor Murray, in addition to writing his personal essay, wrote an essay on Socrates, as part of the “immortal” series on historical figures ranging from Socrates to Franklin Roosevelt, which were included in a book and a CBS record.
Dad was convinced that This I Believe had a universal message. Both British and Arabic This I Believe books were published, intended as forerunners of a book in Urdu. This I Believe segments were translated into six languages and broadcast around the world on The Voice of America. There was also a regular Armed Forces Radio Service feature. In early 1954 Dad took a world trip to expand This I Believe’s reach (and to introduce the Eisenhower Fellowships).
In 1954 I wrote my own This I Believe that was broadcast and published in papers throughout the U. S. That same year This I Believe, after a meteoric rise, was abruptly terminated. Dad and other family members disappeared on a yacht in the Bermuda Triangle in January, 1955.
I never lost faith in the power of Dad’s idea. In 1992, when I commenced a 22-year career as a college history professor, I taught a segment on the similarities and differences between early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. With some trepidation, I had my students explore This I Believe and then write their own essays. I was astonished by the result. Over the years, more than 600 students wrote This I Believe essays. A number of students, whose writing skills seemed otherwise mediocre, wrote brilliant essays. Many said that it was their most meaningful college experience.
I thought that this might provide an opportunity to rekindle Dad’s idea. I sent selections of my students’ This I Believe essays to Janet Murrow. Mrs. Murrow suggested that I contact Joe Wershba, her husband’s long-time colleague. After Wershba’s enthusiastic response, I submitted my idea to Simon and Schuster. The response was that, without a Murrow-type personality, a new This I Believe book was a no go.
Five years later Dan Gediman called me, asking if I was the son of Ward Wheelock. Dan told me that he had read one of the This I Believe books and thought it was a natural for National Public Radio. I was thrilled by his passion for the power of Dad’s idea. Dan and Jay Allison made it happen. I vividly remember a dinner with NPR’s senior executives at which Ed Murrow’s son Casey and I were asked to speak.
The new This I Believe was an NPR feature for years. The This I Believe website (thisibelieve.org) and a series of books spread the This I Believe message widely. Tens of thousands of personal essays poured in from across the country. Dan introduced This I Believe in many schools and colleges. I chose to introduce This I Believe to a senior citizen audience. I first led a four-week This I Believe program for residents in New Jersey’s Somerset and Hunterdon counties. The wait list was large, as we limited the program size to 35 participants. I used a series of This I Believe broadcasts prepared by Dan’s Louisville office, which also provided a history of This I Believe CD. The enthusiastic response was such that I was obliged to extend the program another two weeks.
Subsequently I have conducted nine additional This I Believe programs for ‘mature participants’ in both New Jersey and on Long Island. For me, this has demonstrated that This I Believe resonates with both young and old. Several of my more outspoken participants were in their nineties.
I am heartened that the power of Dad’s idea is as vital today as it was over six decades ago. I applaud Dan and Mary Jo Gediman for making this happen. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute to what Dad initiated than to celebrate This I Believe in Philadelphia, where it all began.
This I Believe: Philadelphia
by Massimo Catarinella via wikimedia.org
In 2013, This I Believe launched a new venture, producing anthologies of 60 essays from a particular state or metropolitan area. Each book will include a combination of the best local essays submitted to us over the past decade and selected essays from that area that were featured in Edward R. Murrow’s original 1950s This I Believe radio series. These anthologies are patterned after our series of eight previous This I Believe books, including the New York Times bestseller This I Believe and our latest book, the 2013 locally-themed collection, This I Believe: Kentucky, now in its second printing and a best-seller throughout the state of Kentucky. Our publishing partner for this venture is The History Press, the largest publisher of locally-oriented books in the United States.
The next book in the series will be This I Believe: Philadelphia, which will contain 30 essays from our contemporary This I Believe series, and 30 from Edward R. Murrow’s original radio series, which began as a local Philadelphia series on then-CBS affiliate WCAU.
Among these contemporary essays in the book are those from Liz Dow, President and CEO of Leadership Philadelphia; Helen Cunningham, Executive Director of the Fels Fund; Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Frank Fitzpatrick; James Harris, president of Widener University; U Penn Chaplain Dr. Charles Howard; Mayor Michael Nutter; and attorney and human rights activist Sozi Tulante.
From Murrow’s 1950s radio series, we will include essays from prominent Philadelphians such as Walter Annenberg, Editor and Publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Cyril Fox, President of Fels & Co.; Paul Comly French, Executive Director of CARE; author Edith Hamilton; Lewis Hoskins, Executive Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee; Olympic Gold Medalist John B. Kelly, Sr.; Anthropologist Margaret Mead; Author James Michener; John Nason, President of Swarthmore College; stockbroker Theodore Roosevelt III; Sculptor Eliza Thayer; and Gilbert White, President of Haverford College.
How You Can Help
Our non-profit organization is seeking donations of any amount to help cover the costs of producing the book ($10,000), which is scheduled to be published in October 2015. So far, we have already received a pledge of $2,000 from an anonymous Philadelphia native, so we only have $8,000 to go! To inspire your support of this project, we have created a series of giving levels which will entitle you to certain benefits:
- For a $15 donation, we will send you a copy of the This I Believe: Philadelphia eBook
- Early Bird Special: For the first 50 donors that make a $20 donation, we will send you an autographed copy of the This I Believe: Philadelphia book
- For a $25 donation, we will send you an autographed copy of the This I Believe: Philadelphia book
- For a $50 donation, we will send you an autographed copy of the This I Believe: Philadelphia book, the eBook, and a thank you on the This I Believe website
- For a $100 donation, we will send you a copy of the autographed book, the eBook, and a thank you on both the website and in the book itself
- For a $250 donation, you will get all the above plus a USB drive filled with mp3 files of seventy-five 1950s This I Believe essays from Philadelphians
- For a $500 donation, you will get all the above and be our podcast sponsor of the week
- For a $1000 donation, you will get all the above and join book editor Dan Gediman for dinner prior to the Oct. 2015 book launch event in Philadelphia
[Please note that we will not be able to ship out books or email eBook files until we receive them from the publisher in mid-October]
To make a donation, you can either click here, which will take you to an online donation form, or you can mail your donation to:
This I Believe: Philadelphia
This I Believe, Inc.
323 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
Your donations are tax-deductible to the extent the law allows. Thank you for your support!