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George Vandeman; TV Evangelist Made Pioneering Broadcasts to Soviet Union

November 04, 2000|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Vandeman, a pioneering television evangelist who made history with the first regularly scheduled American religious broadcast on Soviet television, died early Friday at a Newbury Park retirement center.

He was 84.

Vandeman died in his sleep of cardiac arrest about 5:30 a.m., the Ventura County coroner's office announced.

From 1956 until his retirement in 1992, Vandeman hosted the popular Seventh-day Adventist show "It Is Written." The semi-documentary program, with footage of current events, was broadcast from Thousand Oaks and covered everything from prophecy to positive thinking. The show, with its new host Mark Finley, airs in 5,000 cities in the United States and Canada and 150 countries. Vandeman also wrote more than 40 books on religious subjects.

"We lost one of the great giants of the Adventist Church," said Kermit Netteburg, spokesman for the church in Washington. "He pioneered an area of TV ministry that made a huge difference in people's lives."

George Edward Vandeman was born in 1916 in Pueblo, Colo. His father was a Methodist minister who later converted to Seventh-day Adventism. The family moved to Harrisburg, Pa., and Vandeman had a conversion experience in his late teens and decided to go into the ministry.

According to his daughter, Connie Vandeman Jeffery, Vandeman got his bachelor's degree from Immanuel Missionary College in Washington and a master's degree in religion from the University of Michigan. He also taught speech at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich.

"It Is Written" was initially a 13-week experiment broadcast from Fresno. It then moved to Washington, New York City and Hollywood. In 1971, the Adventist Church moved its production facilities to Thousand Oaks and Vandeman came with it.

Unlike many televangelists, Vandeman eschewed bluster for a more soft-spoken, personal approach to his audience. His program, the first religious show broadcast in color, emanated from a spartan sound stage and ranked in the top 15 of the nation's religious broadcasts each year.

"He had a way of explaining religious truth that was easy to understand; he was magnificent," Netteburg said.

Vandeman's biggest coup occurred in 1991 when his show was given a weekly slot on Soviet television. The Seventh-day Adventist Church agreed to give the Soviets a professional television production studio in Moscow in return for a time slot for "It Is Written."

Robert Schuller, the Garden Grove television minister, was the first foreign preacher to appear on what was then Soviet television during a Christmas Eve message in 1989. Schuller made a deal to do monthly 30-minute messages to the Soviets. But they were later pulled by Soviet authorities.

Vandeman held revival services all over the world, one of the few Adventists to do so. In 1980, he received the Religious Heritage of American Faith and Freedom Award for Television Religious Personality of the Year. He was also an early user of satellite technology to broadcast religious seminars around the world.

Jeffery remembered her father as an active man who traveled the world, visited the White House and counted figures such as Billy Graham as friends. Like others, she recalled his gentle side.

"He had a very distinguished, beautiful voice. He was a very effective communicator," said Jeffery, who is assistant manager of the Adventist Media Center in Simi Valley. "He was a wonderful father. He was away a lot but he was there for the important things."

Finley, who took over the ministry when Vandeman retired, could not be reached for comment but issued a statement.

"George was a close personal friend, a spiritual mentor and a fatherly figure full of wisdom," he said.

Vandeman, a strict vegetarian, was married with four children. In 1985, his son Ronald Vandeman, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, stabbed him repeatedly in the face and back at his Thousand Oaks home. A fellow Adventist minister who was driving past saved Vandeman by restraining his son. Vandeman was treated for minor wounds and his son was sentenced to 180 days in jail. He now lives in Oxnard.

After retiring, Vandeman and his wife of 62 years, Nellie, lived in a Camarillo mobile home park. His wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and now lives in a Camarillo nursing facility. Vandeman suffered congestive heart failure and moved into the Adventist-owned Ventura Estates last June.

Besides his daughter and his wife, Vandeman is survived by three sons, seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

Memorial services are being planned.

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