HARRISONBURG, Va. (Mennonite Mission Network) -- Ruth Wenger Brunk Stoltzfus of Harrisonburg, Va., a pioneer in Mennonite media projects and many other arenas, died Dec. 2, 2008 at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community at the age of 93.
Stoltzfus started the long-running Heart to Heart radio program in 1950 as a family enterprise independent of an agency or church. She was director and speaker on the broadcast for eight years and she shepherded it into partnership with Mennonite Broadcasts Inc. and Mennonite Board of Missions, predecessor agencies of Mennonite Media and Mennonite Mission Network. She turned the program over to Ella May Miller in June of 1958; Miller died about five weeks ago on Oct. 26, also at the age of 93.
Stoltzfus was the first known Mennonite woman on the airwaves with a regular program.
The program began in June 1950, one year before the official launch of what became “The Mennonite Hour” radio program in early 1951. The idea for the program came when Stoltzfus and her family were living in Scottdale, Pa. She and her husband, Grant, contacted a nearby station about doing a radio program especially for women. An assistant first told them there was no available airtime.
But, when the Connellsville station manager heard the idea, he offered Stoltzfus a six-month contract, beginning that same week. The program needed a name immediately. In a story that is now legendary in Mennonite media circles, Grant asked Ruth what she hoped to do on the broadcast, and she responded, “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.”
Stoltzfus discovered an early penchant and love for public speaking in her youth group’s Literary Society. She credited her father, George Brunk, with coaching her on speaking and also said her five years of public school teaching developed her passion for speaking to families. Stoltzfus said existing radio programs for women at that time talked about “food for the body, but none for the soul; much about the right look, but nothing about the right Book; suggestions about accumulating things, but little about building relationships.”
Speaking on the radio program led to conducting family life conferences with her husband in Mennonite and Brethren churches. Through her business, Concord Associates, she published a series of Christian Marriage and Family messages in newspapers which continue today.
Stoltzfus wrote two books: Her Heart and Home, published in 1959, and A Way Was Opened, her autobiography, published in 2003 by Herald Press.
In 1989, at the age of 74, she was the first woman ordained to the ministry by Virginia Mennonite Conference. She served as interim pastor in Toledo and Pandora, Ohio, as co-pastor at First Mennonite Church of Richmond, Va., and on the pastoral team at Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Va.
Stoltzfus was born in Newport News, Va., and was the eighth of nine children of the late George R. and Katie Wenger Brunk. Stoltzfus was the last surviving member of her immediate family.
She graduated from Eastern Mennonite College with a two-year degree in 1937. On June 17, 1941, she married Grant M. Stoltzfus, who died July 21, 1974. She was a member of Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg.
Stoltzfus is survived by one son, Eugene Stoltzfus, Keezletown; three daughters, Kathryn Stoltzfus Fairfield, Bridgewater, Ruth Stoltzfus Jost, Harrisonburg, and Helen Greenberg Stoltzfus, Oakland, Calif.; and by 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her eldest son, Allen Stoltzfus, and by a grandson.
A memorial service, conducted by Phil Kniss and George Brunk III, will be at Park View Mennonite Church on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008, at 4 p.m. Memorial contributions may be made to Virginia Mennonite Conference, 901 Parkwood Drive, Harrisonburg, VA, 22802, or to Mennonite Central Committee, 21 S. 12th St., Akron, PA 17501
Mennonite Media is the public media department of Mennonite Mission Network.