"I Created the World in Six Days and All I Got Was This Lousy Billboard — God"

The strange saga of a religious advertising campaign begins and ends in Fort Lauderdale.

The thing is, although ad execs still pretend it's a secret, the identity of the donor was actually revealed by a North Carolina newspaper four years ago.

In 2002, the Winston-Salem Journal pored through tax records and traced the GodSpeaks campaign to a Fort Lauderdale family in charge of a local foundation started by an Ohio-born oil magnate, a man named Festus Stacy.

A millionaire at just 29, Stacy gave away much of his money in his old age, bestowing huge gifts on Pine Crest School and Holy Cross Hospital. He died in 1995 at age 92, and his wife died in 2002.

The Lord's pitchman: Charlie Robb wrote the best GodSpeaks zingers.
Colby Katz
The Lord's pitchman: Charlie Robb wrote the best GodSpeaks zingers.

The Festus and Helen Stacy Foundation keeps a low profile. Its board members today are the progeny of the Stacys — son Douglas, daughter Virlee, grandsons Brett and Sean Stepelton — whose names ring few bells in Fort Lauderdale but are well-known in philanthropic Christian circles.

IRS documents reveal that in 1998, the foundation paid $151,709 for "billboards." At the time, the Smith Agency said the cost of the campaign was under $200,000. The next year's return shows that the foundation paid more to the Smith Agency, nearly $600,000, than to any other benefactor.

In addition, a QuikBiz quarterly report from 1998 reveals that Douglas Stepelton was made an executive for a Nevada venture called Capital Network of America — with David Bawarsky as a witness.

Sean Stepelton, one of the foundation's directors, denied any connection to GodSpeaks. "There's people speculating all over the place," he says. "You hear these names all over."

"Whoever it is will never tell," Isaacs says. "They don't want anyone to know."

The Festus and Helen Stacy Foundation controls about $100 million, doling out the profits from its investments to ministries, schools, and charities.

Today, Brett and Sean Stepelton oversee the financial/investment aspect of the foundation. Among the top ten nonprofit philanthropic organizations in the nation, the Festus and Helen Stacy Foundation donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to Christian groups nationwide, including local fixtures Calvary Chapel, Coral Ridge Presbyterian, and Shepherd's Way. Its most recent tax return, from 2002, documents $2,687,580 in charitable gifts, including $250,000 to the Salvation Army, $100,000 to SAT-7 (a TV station spreading Christianity in the Muslim world), $221,400 to Orlando's Campus Crusade for Christ, and $447,500 to the Christian Community Fund in Kansas City.

For some organizations, the Stacy family money represents a true godsend. In 2001, for example, one-third of the total annual donations made to Gateway Community Outreach in Deerfield Beach came from the foundation.

But the foundation's desire for secrecy is suspicious to some. The Journal article concluded with a quote from an angry reader: "The first thing I thought when I saw those billboards was 'Where's the fine print telling me who financed this crap? If I put up a billboard saying 'God's a Big Fat Lie: Live Right for Yourself, Today' I'm not sure the Witness Protection Program could keep my identity secret."

DeMoss reveals that the billboards may come back yet again. "I don't think we're done," he hints. "We may look at another phase, see how it goes."

Andy Smith and Charlie Robb say they wouldn't have changed a thing and consider the GodSpeaks experience the best in their careers. To this day, Smith says, he hasn't missed the ad biz for five minutes since he left.

But by 2002, Smith explains, "Charlie was so good at it — he wanted to take the clientele and run with it. But I burned out and wanted to go in a different direction."

The challenges at Center for Precious Minds, where Smith is business director, are more rewarding. "Advertising was fun but a thankless business, frankly. I guess with the God billboards, that's the exception."

"We got tons of letters," Robb recalls. "Which was a first. Me and Andy told each other that if we got even one person to change, to start going to church, then the campaign is a success."

In 1999, a Fort Lauderdale nurse sent Robb a letter, telling a story about her niece, whose husband wouldn't attend church with her. "He saw the billboard that said: 'You Invited Me to Your Wedding, Now Invite Me to Your Marriage,'" she wrote. "He went to church the next Sunday, and his attendance at church services has now become a regular thing."

Unfortunately, that intercession was overshadowed by later events. New Times contacted the woman who wrote the letter, who said that the man she wrote about later committed suicide.

Even so, Smith says: "God, we had fun! The most fun I had in 20 years of advertising was with Charlie." But when Smith called it quits in 2003, he reveals: "I'd had enough. I was burned out. What are you really accomplishing marketing oil companies?"

The God billboards redeemed Robb — who now runs his own ad firm in Port St. Lucie — as well. "Oh yeah. No question. That made up for all the work I did for Lucky Strike and Molson."

"There's very little self-satisfaction in it," Smith adds. "Sure, you make a lot of money, and you get a lot of people to buy products, but there's more to life than just advertising."

GodSpeaks, 1998

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