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Becoming “Uncle Charlie”

On February 22, 2019, after 69 years of being on the air, the old familiar voice on the radio went silent. Children, now in the millions by number, had grown up anxiously awaiting the start of the next Keys for Kids radio program and that familiar greeting that they had grown to know and love: “I’m Uncle Charlie.”

There were two things everyone who knew Charlie VanderMeer knew without question: “he loved kids and he loved Jesus.”1 Throughout his life, he found a way to combine both loves into a ministry in which he poured his heart and soul. To Charlie, Jesus was the most important thing, and children needed to know Him. “I trust Him today just like I did when I was six years old. Knowing Jesus as your personal Savior is the most important thing.”

A “NATURAL”

Charlie’s journey to radio was unexpected. His first live radio broadcast experience came in 1943, at the age of 9. Participating in the Children’s Bible Hour program as a live audience member called upon to read, Charlie stood out as “a natural.” He quickly became a regular contributor on the show, reading scripture and poems on air, and eventually earning a role performing dramatized stories as well.

After graduating from Bob Jones University in 1956 with a degree in Radio-Television Broadcasting (now a part of the Journalism and Mass Communication program), Charlie made plans to use his talent and love for radio in missionary work. But God called him to a mission field closer to home, and he returned to the ministry he knew so well at Children’s Bible Hour. As the radio host and executive director, Charlie oversaw a ministry with a mission: to spread the gospel across the United States to children. The voice on the radio always began: “I’m Uncle Charlie.”

“IS HE REALLY MY UNCLE?”

To multiple generations of children, he was simply known as their “Uncle Charlie,” the radio host they loved and admired. But some, like Rachel, fortunate enough to grow up at his home church in Grand Rapids, MI, never quite knew how famous he was. To her, Charlie VanderMeer was simply “Uncle Charlie,” the kind man who led Sunday School puppet shows and performed the funniest ventriloquist acts she had ever seen as a child. Ginny, a younger friend of Rachel’s, felt the same. Years went by before she realized that Charlie wasn’t actually her “uncle.”

When Rachel left for college in Iowa, an off-hand conversation helped her understand Uncle Charlie’s popularity. Overhearing a group singing the CBH theme song—”Boys and Girls for Jesus”—in their dorm, Rachel said, “I grew up listening to CBH, too! I went to church with Uncle Charlie.” The singing stopped. “Wait,” one of the girls, Lydia said. “You know Uncle Charlie?” Rachel laughed; Lydia was in awe! A group started to form around the conversation. Everyone wanted to know more about the life behind that familiar voice. At a church wedding, Rachel sought out Uncle Charlie and told him her story. “I need to get a picture with you to show everyone,” she finished. Uncle Charlie reluctantly agreed. “You know I have a face for radio!” he quipped.

HE JUST LOVED JESUS AND WANTED TO TELL OTHERS

Ginny, who took so long to realize Charlie wasn’t actually her uncle, remembers him visiting her small Christian school chapel programs. “He never bragged about his fame,” she said. “He didn’t care if he was speaking to a large crowd or a small group. He loved Jesus and wanted to use his talents.” For 69 years he ministered faithfully through his part of the daily Keys for Kids broadcasts. The show aired on “1,000 broadcast outlets, translators and ‘satellators’ in all 50 states and many foreign countries.”3 It’s estimated that his voice taught millions of children during his lifetime.

After stepping down as CBH executive director in March 1999, Charlie remained active as a program host, vocal performer in dramas, and as a trusted advisor. With the new millennium, the ministry adapted from a traditional radio program to modern technology, including rebranding as Keys for Kids and adding streaming options and smartphone apps. The voice of Uncle Charlie lived on. Charlie, by his own admission, didn’t always understand the changing methods, but he always rejoiced to see the gospel going forward to a new generation and continued to minister in whatever capacity he could.

IT’S “WHO” HE KNEW

Charlie’s self-identified life verse was, “Being confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). After nearly 70 years of radio ministry, Charlie’s confidence in His Savior that influenced a life of ministry was made sight at his passing on February 22, 2019, at the age of 84. Among the last words “Uncle Charlie” VanderMeer spoke was the reminder, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and that’s Jesus Christ.” These words were a fitting epitaph of a life of spreading the gospel around the world to those most precious to Jesus: children.

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