Crash Kills Christian Musician

Prominent Recording Artist and Former Wichitan Rich Mullins was En Route to a Benefit Performance at Lawrence-Dumont

Jennifer Comes Roy and Lori Lessner

September 21, 1997

Rich Mullins never thought of himself as famous or talented, and never cared about being rich. What he cared about was serving God and serving others - a message of joy that resonates throughout the contemporary Christian music he wrote and recorded.

A former Wichitan and a graduate of Friends University, Mullins, 41, was killed Friday night in an automobile accident in Illinois. Mullins and a friend, Marshall McVicker, 24, were on their way from Chicago to Wichita for a performance Saturday night at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The concert was a benefit for a youth ministries organization of the United Methodist Church.

"In the industry, he was considered by many to be the greatest writer of our time," said Mullins' manager and friend, Jim Dunning Jr. "I believe that.

"But if Rich had his preference, I think he'd prefer not to be remembered. Rich would prefer that the God he believed in be remembered."

The accident happened shortly before 10 p.m. Friday on southbound Interstate 39 in north-central Illinois. The Jeep in which the two men were riding flipped and the men were ejected, their bodies landing about 12 yards apart in the southbound lanes. Which of them was driving is not known.

A tractor-trailer also traveling south approached the accident shortly after it happened and swerved to avoid the Jeep in the middle of the lanes, said LaSalle County Sheriff Sgt. Gregory Jacobsen. The rig then struck Mullins, who died instantly.

McVicker, a Topeka native, suffered massive head injuries and was taken by helicopter to a Peoria hospital, where his condition remained critical late Saturday.

Police have found no motorists who witnessed the accident and are still investigating.

A bachelor, Mullins is survived by his mother Neva, of Richmond, Ind., two older sisters and two younger brothers. Funeral arrangements are pending.

On his mother's side of the family, Mullins was a "birthright Quaker" born and raised in Richmond, whose faith and beliefs were also shaped by the Independent Christian Church, the Methodist church and a year of religious instruction in the Roman Catholic church.

"His great-grandma, who was very influential, taught him hymns when he was very young and he wrote his first song on the piano, when he was 4," said Kathy Sprinkle of Wichita, a friend of Mullins.

Mullins attended Cincinnati Bible College, where his close friends included Sprinkle and Sam Howard, the son of a minister in Wichita. Mullins moved to Wichita in the late 1980s to be a part of the Rev. Maurice Howard's congregation at Central Christian Church.

"About six months after he came to Wichita, Mr. Howard passed away, but Rich chose to stay here and base his ministry and music out of here," Dunning said. "At that time, he tried to coordinate his mission work with his music career, thinking his Christian career would open doors that music wouldn't."

Mullins had recorded nine albums and had more than 50 hit records in his career, which began in the early 1980s. While still a student in Cincinnati, Mullins was offered a recording contract, and his first album caught the attention of another contemporary Christian recording artist, Amy Grant. A song he wrote, "Sing Your Praise to the Lord," became one of Grant's biggest hits.

Mullins had been nominated many times for Dove Awards, Christian contemporary music's equivalent of the Grammy Awards. He was considered a "core artist" in contemporary Christian radio, someone whose songs become the pillars around which other artists' songs are programmed. His best-known song, "Awesome God," is a modern standard in many Christian churches and is especially popular with young people.

Yet, the soft-spoken Mullins was known as a true paradox - a talented, self-effacing man who refused to let the attention or accolades of the music industry, or his fans, go to his head.

"He would many times in concert liken himself to a child, with God being the Father, and he often thought of his music as the funny-looking drawings that kids do with crayons," Dunning said. "He knew he was touching people deeply, but he was uncomfortable with it because he viewed himself as just a man. Rich truly was a humble person."

Between writing, recording and touring, Mullins completed a degree in 1995 from Friends University in music education. After graduating, he moved to the Navajo reservation near Window Rock, Ariz., teaching music to children on the reservation.

"The hope was that he could organize a choir that might go on the road with him, to expose them to life outside the reservation," Dunning said.

Mullins had recently completed a musical, "Canticle of the Plains," an allegory on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, written as if the advocate of poverty, chastity and obedience were a post-Civil War Kansas cowboy. McVicker, who sang the main part, had been recording in Chicago with Mullins' help. A song from that musical, "Heaven is Waiting," recently hit the Top 40 on the Christian music charts.

Almost 2,000 people were expected to attend Mullins' concert Saturday night, said Kathy Kruger Noble, associate director of communications for the Kansas West Conference of the United Methodist Church. The concert was to close a day of workshops and worship for young people, held Saturday at East Heights United Methodist Church.

Organizers of the youth conference had to announce to the conference attendees the news of Mullins' tragic death.

"Some of them were just sad, in the sense that somebody they admired and someone their friends respected very much had been killed in a tragic way," Noble said. "When I left, there were 75 to 100 kids who were up at the altar, in a prayer circle for him and his family."

Copyright 1997 by The Wichita Eagle

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