Jerry Huntsinger, 90, died peacefully early Sunday morning in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Along with scores of Agitator readers, hundreds of fans, and devotees we’ve lost a dear and precious friend.
We marked his 90th Birthday just two weeks ago with the tribute Celebrating the Wonder and Wisdom of Jerry Huntsinger . Lots of readers weighed in with comments including Richard Viguerie who presciently expressed his fears. We hope you will now feel free to share your memories and stories in the Comments section as part of our collective celebration of Jerry’s remarkable contribution to our community.
Biography of Jerry’s Professional Life.
Author of several classic “how to” books on fundraising and mentor to generations of young fundraisers, the New York Times summed up his skill: “Most Americans have never heard of Jerry Huntsinger, but they have probably heard from him. Mr. Huntsinger is a direct mail fundraiser, one of the best in the business.”
Jerry Huntsinger was born on July 25, 1933, in Salina, Kansas He went on to receive an A.B. in English Literature from Greenville College in Greenville, IL. His graduate degrees include a master’s in philosophy from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. and a master’s in mass communications from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA.
In 1962, Jerry joined the staff of the then Christian Children’s Fund, now ChildFund International in Richmond, Virginia where he traveled to the Fund’s missions in Africa and employed his communications and fundraising skills to alert the public to the plight of orphans and raise funds for what became one of the nation’s largest child sponsorship programs.
In 1967, he co-founded Huntsinger & Jeffer, the Richmond, Va. advertising and fundraising firm, an early pioneer in direct mail fundraising for nonprofit organizations. After selling his interest in that firm he became Senior Creative Consultant for Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company in Falls Church, VA. where he worked on programs for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, the ACLU and Common Cause.
To minimize what he called “the boredom level from my day job” he built and flew radio-controlled airplanes with his sons and grandsons and worked with a London based producer of video games to create theme music and background sounds, and often used his skill on the keyboard to entertain residents of senior centers and nursing homes in the Richmond area.
Over his long and active 61-year professional career he wrote fundraising letters signed by Presidents Reagan, Carter and Clinton, politicians such as Albert Gore, Nancy Pelosi, and celebrities such as Christopher Reeve, the late Frank Sinatra and Joanne Woodward, Susan Sarandon and many, many others.
He created marketing campaigns for companies and organizations as diverse as The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, American Express, Kemper Insurance, Day’s Inn, Ford’s Colony, Virginia Peanuts, Peale Center for Positive Thinking, Crestar Bank, Habitat for Humanity, The Humane Society of the United States, National Wildlife Federation, Handgun Control, Amnesty International, Environmental Defense, Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town, the American Red Cross, Consumers Report, and dozens of others, both commercial and charities.
Often called the “Dean” of direct mail fundraising, his creative work, campaigns, and marketing innovations received awards from public relations societies, film festivals, national advertising agencies, and the Professional Achievement Award from the Non-Profit Council of the Direct Marketing Association.
Jerry would probably wonder why the lede of this remembrance ignores one of his recommended starter sentences like “It was a dark and stormy night…”. In fact, early Sunday morning when I learned of his death it was indeed exactly that emotionally.
Others will recall his advice like “get to the point”… or ”you have to pursue what some may consider crazy ideas to make progress. And anyway, you gotta be a little crazy to be in this business”.
Jerry was anything but crazy. He was innovative, unorthodox, and iconoclastic, with a rare skill for simplification of the most complex of issues…always alert to what too many today consider ‘small or insignificant’ details like size of type fonts, teaser copy on the carrier and the importance of the message and offer on the response form.
Most of all, Jerry was generous. There are literally generations of skilled copywriters today who were taught and nurtured along the path to success. For years, after he sold his agency, he worked as Senior Creative Consultant with Craver, Mathews, Smith. He would diligently make the 107-mile trip from his home Richmond to our offices in Falls Church, VA where I’d find him in his Ford F-150 pickup, making notes or dictating copy waiting for the office to open.
Jerry preferred dictating copy. First, asking that a client not “send me more than 30 pounds of your policy stuff” he would absorb the detail. Then, pick up the phone or his tape recorder and send off the dictation for a nearly pitch-perfect package to Deidre Price our transcription whiz in Kentucky, then do a final “polish” on the return transcription and send it to the client. Masterful. And most important: Conversational. Just the way a direct mail letter should be.
[ Jerry distilled a lifetime of professional success into 87 tutorials in the fundraising treasure trove which is yours fee and online at SOFII.Org. See Introducing the Wisdom of Jerry Huntsinger to discover this marvelous gift that you can put to work immediately. ]
I treasure each of the 52 years Jerry and I wrote together and laughed together, which we did until just last month. I loved his “country boy” innocence masking a theological and mass communications education even as he credited some of his most brilliant recommendations and critiques to Eddie, his gardener.
In fact, Eddie was real. And one of Eddie’s major innovations was an adaptation of the familiar and successful technique known as the “Johnson Box”, attributed to the great copywriter Frank Johnson.
Whereas the Johnson Box is used at the top of a direct mail letter, Jerry loved to employ what he called the “Eddie Box”, appearing at the end.
So, as I say goodbye to my friend, it’s appropriate to end with an Eddie Box.
For 15 years Jerry read the Agitator. Most wonderfully, he contributed his critique, suggestions, deep knowledge, and boundless curiosity to help the DonorVoice team develop the Copy Optimizer and translate the sometimes-arcane language of linguistic science into practical—and as he demanded—easy to understand and easy to use tools.
I started working with Jerry when he was 83. If I make it that far I hope to have half his boundless curiosity and openness to reconsider and reimagine.
Jerry created more control packages in his career –many still out there in use today—than there are Power Points at a fundraising conference. He willingly shared them and encouraged us to analyze and demonstrate how using Copy Optimizer and our behavioral science research could improve them.
To label Jerry a “lifelong learner” is to do injustice to his insatiable curiosity and willingness to step on the status quo. It’s not many septuagenarians who decide to compose music for video games and get paid for doing it.
I don’t have Roger’s 52 years’ working with Jerry, but in my 7 years I never heard the phrase “back then we….” or “we tried that, and it didn’t work”, only “Let’s give it a go.”
Dear Reader—Please Remember
Please share with other readers your memories of Jerry. Thank you.
Roger and Kevin