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Conway's Workman dies at 86

Arkansas Gazette's first religion editor remembered as leader, gentleman

Posted: January 13, 2014 - 7:13pm

Born in Fayetteville on July 4, 1927, the Rev. Dr. John S. Workman would soon follow in his father’s footsteps becoming a Methodist minister, followed by a career as Arkansas’ best-known religion columnist and editor.

Workman, a retired Methodist minister and journalist, died on Jan. 9. He was 86 years old and had been a resident of Conway since 1985.

W. Ellis Arnold III of Conway, president of Hendrix College, said Workman was a remarkable man who possessed an extraordinary spiritual gift of storytelling.

“When you encountered John you were always captivated by the twinkle in his eye, and his laughter and wit,” Arnold said.

Workman was best known for his work as the Arkansas Gazette’s editor covering religion. At the Gazette in the late 1970s into the early ‘90s, his work as both a reporter and columnist made him one of Arkansas’ most respected and influential voices on religion and its importance in American life.

Joe Mosby of Conway, longtime outdoor editor for the Arkansas Gazette, said when someone coined the phrase “renaissance man,” John Workman may have been the model.

“He was talented and active in many different fields – church, journalism, community, bicycling and much more,” Mosby said. “He did all these things well. He was a devoted family man. John was a gentleman and a gentle man.”

Workman was the second son of Dr. James W. Workman (d. 1985), a Methodist minister, and Meta Sue Sparks Workman of Fordyce (d. 1991). He became the fifth in a line of Methodist ministers in the Workman family stretching back to the earliest days of Methodism in America.

Upon graduation from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., Workman served two years in the U.S. Army before attending Hendrix College. After college, Workman received an additional degree in divinity from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He later received an Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Philander Smith College.

“John was an outstanding person, a leader in the Methodist Church and a leader in the field of journalism for many years,” said the Rev. Frank Jones of Conway, who first met Workman at Hendrix College.

Following his time as editor of the Arkansas Methodist, Workman went on to become the Arkansas Gazette’s first full-time religion editor, publishing a religious column and weekly column of opinion each Saturday.

In his role as religion editor, Workman was given the opportunity to interview the religious newsmakers of his time from Billy Graham and Mother Teresa to Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Arguing strongly that all topics had a religious dimension, Workman broadened the Gazette’s religion coverage to include state and national politics, American foreign policy, gun control, capital punishment, the proliferation of nuclear arms, the equal rights amendment, abortion, race relations and an array of other social issues.

Although he often drew criticism for writing on controversial subjects not usually covered by religion reporters, he had a reputation for fair and evenhanded reporting. He was best known, however, for his columns and opinion pieces, which were thoughtful, undogmatic and often characterized by a self-deprecating humor. A selection of these materials appeared in Workman’s three books: Fireflies in a Fruit Jar, Open Windows and Travels in a Tree House.

“He was always one to push back boundaries, and he was very witty about it,” Jones said.

His reporting during this period also included assignments to Great Britain, Germany, Central America and six African countries, including Tanzania, where he filed reports on the work of Arkansas-based Heifer International.

Conway photographer Stuart Holt, who worked with Workman at the Arkansas Gazette, said Workman was a genuine guy who walked the walk.

Of the many things Workman was — cancer survivor, published author, minister — he was also a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather.

Workman is survived by brothers James W. Workman, Jr. of Arlington, Wash. and Walter E. Workman of Kerrville, Texas; Ruth Elizabeth Teague Workman of Conway, his wife of 64 years and their children: John S. Workman, Jr. of Ridgewood, N.J.; Paul Steven Workman of Owasso, Okla.; Susan Workman Jones of Miami, N.M.; and Charles M. Workman of Valeyres-sous-Montagny, Switzerland.

The memorial service will be at the First United Methodist Church in Conway, on Saturday, Jan. 18, at 1 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family would welcome memorial donations made to First United Methodist Church of Conway, Hendrix College or Heifer International.

(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at michelle.corbet@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)

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