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Publishing giant promoted integration


7:00 A.M. EST April 22, 2010 |

John Procter, 
former president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House.
 A UMNS file photo..
John Procter, former president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House. A UMNS file photo.
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John Procter, 91, former president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, died April 15 in Nashville.

After noting that two daughters, three grandchildren and one great-grandson survive him, the obituary noted that the former World War II Army Air Force captain “was employed by the United Methodist Publishing House for 43 years and served as president and publisher for 13 years.”

Just two lines?

How can anyone summarize the contributions of this giant of a man in a two-line sentence?

His rags-to-riches story reads like a novel.

Following his 1938 graduation from Pleasant Hill Academy near Crossville, Tenn., John packed his cardboard suitcase and hitched a ride to Nashville with the graduation speaker. With $15 in his pocket, the son of a sharecropper got a job as an elevator operator at a YMCA for $12 a week.

In 1940, he began his long career with the Methodist Publishing House as an accounting clerk. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he entered the Army Air Force, advanced to the rank of captain, navigated B-24 bombing missions over Italy and once flew to the North Pole.

In 1945, he returned to the publishing house as an accountant, and worked there until he returned to service in the Air Force during the Korean War.

Following his stint in Korea, he served as an accounting supervisor for the Nashville publishing house. He was appointed vice president in charge of publishing in 1964. He was elected president and publisher in 1970 and served until his retirement in 1982.


When he was named president, the publishing house was a segregated facility. Lovick Pierce, the former chief executive, had resisted efforts to integrate the editorial and executive offices. But when Procter assumed the office, he declared, “The church wants us to integrate and that’s what we are going to do.”

At that time, all vice presidents had to be elected by the board, so Procter worked with key board members to ensure the election of the Rev. W. T. Handy as the first black vice president. Handy, a popular official and pastor, was elected bishop in 1980. During his 1982 retirement dinner, Handy noted that the publishing house “now has been cited by the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race to be a model to the rest of the church.”

Roger Burgess, 82, former top staff executive of United Methodist Communications and former vice president of public relations of the publishing house, said, “Of all the bosses I’ve had in my 40-year career through the church, John Procter was the best; he was the fairest and the most successful".

Burgess, who worked at the publishing house from 1974 to 1984, said he only saw Procter get angry once in all the time he worked with him.

“During a board meeting, a businessman who was new to the agency challenged one of his decisions. 'Sometimes you have to put a burr under the saddle of a horse to get him going,' said the man. 'That might work with a mule,' responded Procter. 'It won’t work with a thoroughbred.'”

Personal memories

I was hired by Procter in 1974 as an editor with “Today” magazine, the successor to “Together” magazine. Unfortunately, circulation fell to 160,000 subscribers. Prior to the computer age, that figure was not sufficient to support a labor-intensive publication, so Procter decided to discontinue the magazine. I moved to the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference to serve as director of communications for 18 months and was later invited back to the publishing house as the editor of two new publications, “Circuit Rider,” a magazine for clergy, and “Newscope,” a weekly newsletter. Both publications, introduced by Procter, are still published.

During that time, Procter gave absolute freedom to the editorial process, but was always available for advice when needed.

He was unafraid of controversy. I remember when he gave the green light to publish a book on Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church. He allowed me to carry positive and critical reviews of the book. How many publishers allow negative reviews of their own products?

Lasting legacy

During his presidency, he enabled the publishing agency to open additional Cokesbury stores, create Curric-U-Shops, and shift from linotype or hot-metal composition to a computerized typesetting system.

The publisher worked long hours during the week, but he proclaimed, “Saturdays are for me and Sundays are for families.” He was an avid golfer and staff retreats were frequently held near Florida golf courses.

John and his family attended Calvary United Methodist Church every Sunday, where he taught a Sunday school class. Legend has it, he also enjoyed watching the television exploits of Woody Woodpecker, the Road Runner and the battered Coyote. He also found time to serve` on boards of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, the Association of American Publishers, the Vanderbilt Medical Center and Third National Bank.

Neil Alexander, current president and publisher, arrived at the publishing house long after Procter retired, but he said, “Then and now, Mr. Procter’s legend lives on as a strong, compassionate, pragmatic and effective leader. The missional and financial foundations he established have helped UMPH remain a viable, self-funding ministry for nearly three decades after his retirement.

“We are in his debt.”

*Peck was an employee of the United Methodist Publishing House for 25 years prior to his 2000 retirement.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5472 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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