Colleagues from the Christian television community remember the Rev. Ron Hembree as a devoted family man and worker whose financial decisions weren't always popular but whose leadership was influential.
Rev. Hembree, 72, a local evangelist, author and president of Cornerstone TeleVision, died in his Murrysville home Thursday from a cause that is still unknown.
Richard Hatch, a local Christian media personality who had a talk show on CTV in the 1980s and whom Rev. Hembree was about to bring back with a new show this fall, said Rev. Hembree was "the most godly" man he ever knew.
"He had all the flaws of human nature, but I found no guile in him at all," said Mr. Hatch, who had known him for 25 years. "There was never anything on his mind except the Lord's work."
When he and Mr. Hatch first met, Rev. Hembree had just left the pulpit of a large Assemblies of God Church due to the breakup of his marriage. He later remarried, ensuring that the denomination wouldn't take him back as a pastor.
One of Cornerstone's trademark shows, "His Place," was created to feature Rev. Hembree as a divorced pastor who had opened a diner because he had to leave the pulpit, Mr. Hatch said. But he preferred other types of television to that experimental hybrid of soap opera and talk show, and let others take over his on-air duties.
In its place, and at his own expense, he created "Quick Study," a show that leads viewers through the Bible in a year, and is still running 20 years later. He had wrapped up filming 11 new episodes hours before his death.
After becoming president of CTV in 2002, he created some controversy because of his efforts to reduce the company's debt. These included layoffs and program cuts that weren't popular with everyone, Mr. Hatch said. He said the company was starting to turn around financially when Rev. Hembree died.
Chad Hembree, his son and a producer and editor of the flagship talk show "Focus Four," said his father's death was unexpected. About a month ago in Canada, Rev. Hembree suffered what they thought was a mild heart attack, but doctors told him it was just the effects of stress and urged him to make some lifestyle changes.
"Then two days ago, they gave him a clean bill of health and told him he was fine and cleared to work," Mr. Hembree said.
Rev. Hembree went to the station to film episodes of "Quick Study," came home, sat down and lost consciousness.
Rev. Hembree was born in Missouri but moved all over the country as the son of a preacher who served a number of churches. His earliest desire was to be a missionary, Mr. Hembree said.
"When he was 3 he told his mother, 'When I grow up, I want to be a missionary,' " Mr. Hembree said.
As Rev. Hembree grew older, he realized that he had greater gifts in other areas but was determined that he would still support missionary work. For many years he operated Good Friends, a multifaceted ministry that includes support of several orphanages worldwide.
"Everything he did in life revolved around ministry and his love for the Lord," Mr. Hembree said.
That included adopting Chad at age 11, along with his brother, Kyle, at a point when the Hembrees were on the upper end of middle age. The boys' father had died years earlier and their widowed mother worked in the school cafeteria where Rev. Hembree's wife, Cathy, was a teacher, he said. They became friends and, after his mother died of cancer, the Hembrees adopted both boys.
"It was seamless. I feel like Ron and Cathy are my mother and father. I don't feel adopted. We are a family that have our little broken pieces, but God built all of us to be his own unique art collage," Chad Hembree said. "Next to Jesus, what meant most to him was his family. "
The entire family was involved in Cornerstone and in Good Friends. Chad Hembree admired how his father handled the painfully difficult financial situation at Cornerstone.
"The ministry was in incredible debt when he took over, in the millions. As of today the last I heard, we were $200,000 ahead of budget right now. We're far out of the red. That's something you can attribute to his leadership. He fulfilled the goals that he had."
The Rev. Gary Mitrik, senior pastor of Greater Works Outreach in Monroeville, and a board member of Cornerstone TeleVision, said Rev. Hembree was "a great leader."
He said Rev. Hembree discovered that Cornerstone was heavily in debt and pulled the plug on an effort to swap licenses with WQED.
"It was not something that was in the best interest of the ministry, and it was part of the reason for the financial strain at that time," he said.
Through it all, Rev. Hembree maintained an even disposition and kept his sense of humor.
"For as long as I've known him, he's been 'steady Eddie.' He just got in there and believed that this was the Lord's ministry and that the Lord was going to take care of it and provide for it," Rev. Mitrik said.
Besides his wife and the two sons mentioned, both of Jeannette, Rev. Hembree is survived by sons Rodney of Orangevile, Ont., and Frank of Murrysville; two daughters, Robin Heiskell of Goodyear, Ariz., and Cathy Hembree of Murrysville; and six grandchildren.
Arrangements are by James E. Lindsay Funeral Home, Harrison City. The family plans a future announcement on a memorial service.
Donations can be made to Good Friends Inc., P.O. Box 150, Murrysville, PA 15668-0150, the home of "Quick Study."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. Staff writer Lindsay Carroll contributed.