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Friday, September 16, 2011 | Comments (12)
Norm Sper (1925—2011)
Norm Sper (1925—2011)


N
orm Sper went to heaven Wednesday night.

You may never have heard of Norm before, but you probably owe him more than you realize. I certainly owe him more than I could ever repay.

Norm lived an amazing life. Born in Hollywood, CA in 1925, he was surrounded by sports and show business. Norm's father, Norman L. Sper, Sr., was a celebrated WWI war correspondent and hero who later starred in and produced "Football this Week," one of the earliest successful syndicated sports television programs. Norm's mother, Winona Winter, was a well-known vaudevillian and early film actress. Will Rogers was Norm's godfather.

Norm showed outstanding athletic and academic promise very early, and he left home as a teenagerto attend prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. After high school he received an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolisbut chose instead to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he led the UNC swimming and diving team, setting NCAA records with his diving and backstroke performances. Norm was a four-time first-team All-American (1947-1950), the first in UNC history. He was chosen for the United States' Olympic diving team, but because of World War II the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled, so Norm never swam or dived as an Olympian, though he was arguably the best diver in the world through most of the 1940s.


During those years at UNC, Norm repeatedly was elected as head cheerleader. The position perfectly suited his upbeat and always optimistic personality. He is remembered to this day in Chapel Hill as one of UNC's most popular cheerleaders ever.














In fact, Norm's longest-lasting contribution at UNC was the Victory Bell—the famous trophy that goes annually to the victor in the UNC-Duke football rivalry. Norm got the bell from an old steam train. His counterpart at Duke, cheerleader Loring Jones, mounted it on a cart. The bell is one of the oldest, most famous rivalry-trophies in college football.

Norm at the 1950 Cotton Bowl
UNC blocking back Joe Kosinski gets a pep talk from two of Carolina's top supporters at the 1950 Cotton Bowl: Arden Boisseau (left), Carolina's coed princess in the Cotton Bowl Beauty court, and Head Cheerleader Norm Sper. Taken in late December 1949 in Dallas, TX, leading up to the 1950 Cotton Bowl game between Carolina and Rice on January 2, 1950. [From the Hugh Morton Collection of Photographs and Films]

With his Hollywood roots and world-class swimming expertise, Norm naturally made friends of people like Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams. He once showed me (reluctantly, and at some else's behest) a photograph of the three of them laughing together at a party. Norm never boasted about his athletic achievements. I never heard him talk about the glory of his college athletic triumphs. If anyone ever brought up the subject, he blushed and downplayed it.

After college, Norm emerged as a gifted entrepreneur, both creative and successful in practically everything he ever did. He became an Amway distributor in the formative years of that company and his Amway business quickly grew sufficiently that he was able to retire early.

Then Norm started a business called "On-the-Spot Duplicators." He would record convention speeches, making cassette copies on the spot and selling them to attendees within minutes after the end of each session. Once that business became prosperous, Norm sold it and entered the second phase of his "retirement."

All those were fine achievements and certainly would have been more than enough for the typical person to feel an inflated sense of accomplishment. But Norm's greatest, most far-reaching contribution came after that second retirement.

Norm was the founder of the "Grace to You" radio program.

As one of the elders of Grace Community Church in the mid 1970s (when John MacArthur's teaching ministry was just beginning to attract notice outside southern California), Norm was convinced John's teaching needed to be on the radio, so he approached John with the idea. Here's how John MacArthur remembers it:

Norm Sper came to me one time and said, "We ought to be on the radio."

And I said, "Well, that's great. Why don't you do that? Why don't you pray about that and pursue that ministry if God has brought you to that?"


The truth is, John MacArthur at first had very low expectations and a low level of enthusiasm for the project. Norm had no prior experience in radio. No one who actually worked in Christian radio seemed excited about the idea. Virtually everyone in radio whom Norm had talked to had tried to discourage him. From a rational and business perspective, the whole idea seemed impossibly fraught with negatives. Plus, John MacArthur made it clear from the outset that he had no time to sit in a studio and record a half-hour broadcast each day.

No problem, Norm said. He intended to air the sermons anyway. He would edit them into half-hour segments to make the broadcasts feasible.

That was the chief element of the plan that practically everyone with any expertise in the industry said was unworkable. They insisted the only way to be successful with a daily Bible-teaching program was to speak directly to the radio audience from a studio, the way J. Vernon McGee did it. Airing a sermon wouldn't do. Half a sermon was an infinitely worse idea, they said.

But Norm persisted. After a couple of short-lived attempts at buying time on secular stations (adjacent to a horse-racing broadcast, in one case) the first regular daily broadcasts of Grace to You in its current format began in 1978—launching simultaneously in Tampa, Tulsa, and Baltimore.

The first paid staff members of GTY
The first paid staff members of Grace to You: (L to R) Norm Sper, Dana Way, Rick Draa

The GTY Staff in 1982
The Grace to You Staff in 1982

By the time I came to work at Grace to You in 1983, the ministry's foundation was already solid and the ministry was growing steadily. Norm retired again sometime around 1989 or '90, finally for the last time. Declining health in the past decade seemed to heap difficulty upon difficulty for Norm and his family, and though we will miss him terribly, we rejoice that he has entered the presence of Christ, whom he loved and served so faithfully.

Norm Sper was one of the gentlest, humblest souls I have ever met. My entire career and life's work were made possible by him. I'm grateful every day for his faithfulness. I can't wait to be reunited with him in heaven.

"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!" (Revelation 14:13).

Norm Sper

Phil Johnson
Executive Director


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#1  Posted by Steve Mateuszow  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 5:09 AM

I'm extremely grateful for all that Norm has done. His faithfulness and obedience to the Lord's call on his life have made Grace to You available to myself and countless others whom God has blessed with a hunger for the teaching of the word oof God. The proogram continues to be a blessing to my life.

#2  Posted by Tonya Dixon  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 5:16 AM

Praise the Lord for Norm's faithfulness and perseverance. Can't wait to meet him in heaven...

#3  Posted by Toni Smith  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 8:09 AM

I remember reading awhile back about a fighter pilot who always remembered to thank the guy who packed his parachute because although he may never have to use it...it better work if he does have to rely on it. The devotion ended with the question, "who packs YOUR parachute and have you thanked them today?" I believe, Pastor MacArthur, you just did. And I am thankful for this man's life because your teachings have greatly changed my life and so I am also thankful for who packs YOUR parachute!

#4  Posted by Annemarie Williams  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 8:34 AM

I am so immensely grateful for what he did that I can't begin to put it into words. I was angry and vocal, married to an unbeliever. Now, my husband is a true believer and we are attending a church that faithfully preaches and teaches the Word. I could go on and on. One day I will thank him personally.

~Annemarie Williams

#5  Posted by Elaine Bittencourt  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 9:30 AM

Thank you for posting this Phil. Mr. Sper is one of the many people who we on this side of gty will never know until we get to heaven, but we all thank him and all others who faithfully love the Lord while serving us.

To God all glory,

Grace and peace to you,

E.

#6  Posted by John Dienhart  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 6:16 PM

As a Bible College student in Wisconsin in the late 70's the society I belonged to at school would travel into the city and help out at the rescue mission. John was preaching over WVCY at thistime and it was suggested from the school that we should not listen to him, why I do not know.

Well, we would drive into town and minister at the mission and drive back to school ever so slowly because we didn't want to miss Grace To You. Often, we arrived back on campus before the end of the program. We would sit out in the car in the cold and listen to the end. Then we would sit there another 5 minutes in the cold, saying nothing, just thinking, soaking in the truths we had just heard and learned, thanking the Lord for giving us this opportunity. I will never forget hearing John those first few times as I sat in that car in the cold. It wasn't topical it was expositional and it was powerful and deep and good. We learned so much.

Thank you Phil for posting this. What a wonderful testimony of God working in the background through a humble dedicated servant like Mr. Sper. I can only imagine the countless souls his vision and dedication has led to the Lord while he quietly worked in the background.

His testimony epitomizes the last part of that verse in Psalms that says, "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness." (Psalm 84:10) It is so encouraging to so many of us who "work in the background."

#7  Posted by Mitch Eddards  |  Friday, September 16, 2011at 9:20 PM

Praise God for the things Norm did I came across John Macarthur through someone mentioning the name to me and I've been listening to the Grace to you Podcast almost daily now. I love listening to Macarthur's messages they are so rich full of God's Word and if it weren't for Norms work partly I as well as many others would have not heard Macarthur's messages. I have been blessed in my walk with the Lord Greatly as a result of the Ministry of Grace to You.

I own a copy of the Macarthur NASB Study Bible and I love it and own a few of Macarthur's books.

#8  Posted by Margaret Dunn  |  Saturday, September 17, 2011at 1:56 AM

The GTY radio program is a very important part of my life and has brought me so much closer to God. Thank you, Norm, for having the vision and following through with it. May God bless Norm's family and friends.

#9  Posted by Jack Ragan  |  Saturday, September 17, 2011at 2:43 AM

I knew Norm Sper about like I knew/know Phil Johnson - from a distance although I worked for both. Neither of them know me - the important thing is, I know them both to be faithful servants of our Lord from personal experience. I remember when Norm started up the radio thing and remember how cool John was to it. Yes, I heard it all because I was there milling around in the background. Therefore, I can verify what was written about Norm as being true. I remember him. To know him even on a peripheral bases was to remember him. Such was his person.

Jack Ragan

#10  Posted by Mary Oates  |  Saturday, September 17, 2011at 4:15 AM

What a beautiful tribute to this man.

#11  Posted by Sylvie Pelletier  |  Saturday, September 17, 2011at 6:55 AM

I live in Quebec, Canada, and since I became a Christian almost 17 years ago, I've been listening to Grace to You, and have been so thankful for this ministry. I've been grateful to God for John MacArthur who takes the time to seriously and thoroughly study the Bible, search God's heart, and teach the whole truth of the Word of God, challenging us daily in our walk with God.

However, we so often forget that a lot of people work behind the scene to make such a ministry possible. So I want to take this opportunity to express my most sincere gratefulness to all of you who, like Norm, work behind the scene, making John MacArthur's messages come to life all around the world. You people are doing an amazing job!!! And though you probably don't get all the recognition that you deserve, I'm pretty sure that when you meet our Lord Jesus Christ in heaven, you most certainly will hear Him say: "Well done, good and faithful servant...", as most probably Norm heard!

Many thanks to each and everyone of you, and may God bless and surround each one of you with His infinite love and grace. THANK YOU!

#12  Posted by Tyron Wheeler  |  Saturday, September 17, 2011at 9:36 AM

I am sitting here thinking a young man who gave his five loaves and two fish (who the disciples took credit for) to Jesus and thousands were blessed, never knowing the original giver. Norm "Thank-YOU" for giving your ideas, talents and blessings to the same Jesus! Only now do you understand how the Lord is able to do "More than we could ever ask or imagine" with what we give Him. Norm, you never knew me and I never had the opportunity to "Thank-YOU" in person, but I want you to know that you my friend have blessed me with something of eternal value. Thanks for your faithfulness and service to our Lord, King and Friend! Because of Norm my knowledge of Jesus and His Will for my life is greater. A grateful Grace Partner, Tyron