In high school I spent most of my spare time making movies. They were silent and short – largely because in those days my father’s super 8mm movie camera only took 3 minute reels and had no microphone. But I had a group of creative friends, and together we produced 3 minute space movies, gangerster movies, war movies, and more.
It never occurred to me that I could actually make films for a living, so when I went away to college at Oral Roberts University I majored in music. (My dad was a pastor and back in those days every pastor’s kid was supposed to play piano.) But I thought I might find some college friends who liked movies, so I took my dad’s camera and my little films with me. Sure enough, during my first few days in the dorm, I was unpacking my suitcase and a couple of my films fell out, and Rod Carlson, a student who lived across the hall saw it and mentioned he was taking an actual film class.
That night, Rod took me down to the film department in the basement of the library and showed me how to edit my movies (I had no idea you could actually cut and splice film!)
While we were editing, Dan Dunkelberger, the film professor at ORU was there working on a project of his own, and later, when he was leaving, stopped by our editing table and introduced himself. He said, “I’ve been watching your films over your shoulder, and I have students who have been taking my film classes for two years who still don’t do this well. Would you mind if I showed your film in class tomorrow?”
I was a little stunned, but quickly replied, “Sure – if I can sit in the back.”
So the next day, I sat on the back row of that film class while they projected my little movie. Believe me – the film was nothing special, but when it was over, the class did something I never expected: they discussed it!
At that moment, a thought occurred to me that may be one of the most crystal-clear moments of revelation I’ve ever experienced: The idea that if I could do something with a camera that makes people talk like this – that’s exactly what I’m supposed to do with my life.
It was so profound that I changed my major that same day, started studying film and media, finished with a degree in Communication, and never looked back. That simple invitation by professor Dunkelberger the evening before had completely changed the trajectory of my life.
Dan was a film professor at ORU from 1967 to 1974. He started the cinematography department and later travelled the world producing Christian films for organizations like World Literature Crusade, Ken Anderson Films, and many others.
He eventually retired to Pasadena and years later when Dan was in his 70’s and after Kathleen and I moved to Los Angeles, I looked him up. I drove to his house and we sat on his front porch and talked about what each of us had done since my freshman year in college.
The best thing about our visit was that I had the opportunity to remind him of that night in the film editing room so many years before and how much that moment was responsible for everything I’ve done since. We both got a little misty-eyed, and it was a wonderful visit.
A year or so later Dan died of leukemia. To this day I’ll never forget how it felt to remind him of that moment and to see how much it meant to him, and to me as well.
How about you? Is there someone in your life that made the kind of difference Dan Dunkelberger made in mine? When was the last time you thanked that person?
One day it will be too late, so make the call. It won’t just change their life, it will change yours.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a producer and media consultant to churches and ministries across the country. His latest book is “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Their Credibility and How We Get It Back.” Find out more at www.philcooke.com.