Published 12:00 am Friday, April 27, 2001

It all ends Sunday morning.

Friday, April 27, 2001

It all ends Sunday morning.

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America’s longest-running locally produced television program airs for the last time.

Fifteen minutes of fame turned into a television ministry for nearly a half-century.

Pastor Joe Matt, 78, and his wife Della, as well as Vern Dunham and Sal Espe, musical accompanists, no longer will fill the airwaves.

"The Family Hour" is being canceled.

Actually, the "stars" of the show, the Matts are doing the canceling. They have decided that because of Pastor Joe’s declining health at the age of 78, plus rising costs, Crane Community Chapel no longer can sponsor the show.

That means 46 years of music, meditations and Pastor Joe’s message must come to an end.

"It feels good. I enjoyed every minute of every show we did, but you got to quit sometimes and this is it for us," Pastor Joe said.

Only 15 minutes long, "The Family Hour" television show’s impact was far-reaching and, maybe, forever.

The show’s first broadcast was May 1, 1955, at 5 p.m. on then-KMMT Channel 6 in Austin.

"In those days, it was done live," Della recalled. "Right after Sunday morning services at Crane Community Chapel, we would load the organ into the trailer and jump into the car and race out to the studios, which were out on Highway 105 South, where KAUS radio is today."

"Bernice Moe, our organist, rode with us and the kids, David and Nancy, too. When we got to the studio, Joe had everything ready for us to do and we did it. When we were finished, we loaded the organ into the trailer and went home," she recalled.

The story of how "The Family Hour" began also comes from Della.

"Joe wanted to go on TV to reach more people and he prayed on it, but it wasn’t until a man came down from the Cities and went to church at Crane Community Chapel, that the dream came true," she said.

"Joe told the man we needed some way to pay for six broadcasts to get started and the man said ‘I will pay for those six broadcasts. It only cost us $42.50 a month for four broadcasts in those days," she said.

Their son, David, and daughter, Nancy, were on-screen parts of the show. David, 12, was needed to help his father haul the organ, their only instrument at the time, into the television studio. Nancy would change from her Sunday clothes into her pajamas and kneel beside a children’s bed on a set in the television studio and bow her head in prayer, while music played and Pastor Joe spoke a short message. She was only 5 years old at the time.

Vern Dunham joined "The Family Hour" as a bass guitarist in 1980. Sal Espe joined the broadcast team in 1985 with his guitar virtuosity.

"It was a very rewarding experience," Dunham said.

"It brought people closer to God," Espe said.

Along the way, the show shifted from Sunday nights to Sunday mornings and from a live broadcast to a taped version.

The formula never varied: music, meditations and a message.

Gary Froiland added a puppet feature to the show that followed his children’s church director’s message delivered in Crane Community Chapel.

But mainly, it was the Pastor Joe and Della show. Della’s "Storytime" feature for children, including a poem, the modern version of her daughter Barbara’s pajama-clad appearance decades ago and Joe, the son of a preacher, former meatpacker and confidant to the poor as well as the rich and treating everyone alike.

He calls it "walking in the footsteps God wanted us to walk."

The Rev. Randy Petersen, who replaced Pastor Joe as Crane Community Chapel’s senior pastor when he retired in 1998, became a regular on the show in August 2000.

"I think it has been a unique way to reach into homes where people couldn’t get to church for some reason or the other as well as the unchurched who just didn’t go to church," Petersen said of the show. "It brought a different perspective to the church’s ministries."

"But," Petersen added, "the biggest reason for its success was Pastor Joe, who has never really been big on any publicity, but went on the air each Sunday morning to sing a song or two, tell a story and preach the message."

At 6 p.m. Saturday, May 5, KAAL Region Six is airing a tribute to "The Family Hour."

Dan Collado, production/promotions manager, directed the show’s taping Wednesday morning. Gary Beck, long-standing cameraman for the show, also was there.

"Family Hour – Through The Years" will include clips from early broadcasts, reminiscing by Pastor Joe and Della, as well as Dunham and Espe and testimonials from people such as Richard L. Knowlton, a special friend.

The Knowlton family lived near the church and the retired Hormel Foods Corp. chairman of the board grew up in the congregation. Before becoming the chief executive of the Austin-based Fortune 500 company, Knowlton worked in the Austin plant with Pastor Joe, during Matt’s own career as a meatpacker with Hormel Foods Corp.

Pastor Randy will narrate the television tribute and once again, the music of Dunham and Espe will be played. Surely, Pastor Joe’s favorite "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" will serenade listeners.

But this weekend, the last regular "Family Hour" telecast will be aired at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

Now in a wheelchair, Pastor Joe will have an open Bible on a table before him turned to his favorite passage, Philippians 4:13, where it reads "I can do all things with Christ, who strengthens me" and Della will recite the words that have guided them for 45 years of TV ministry: "Only one life ’twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last."

While the quarter-hour-long "Family Hour" is ending, Pastor Joe’s message doesn’t.

No other 15 minutes of fame lasted so long.