Faces in the Crowd: John Roffel

December 10, 2019

John Raffel
John Raffel with members of the Lutheran Church Michigan District Board of Directors – Ruth Martin, Rich Kruger, John, and Rev.

Write, write, write, write, write.
And then keep writing.

That was the advice given to John Raffel as a freshman journalism student at Ferris State in 1974.

And it’s worked. With almost 50 years in the industry, John has gone on to make a name for himself as an extremely accomplished northern Michigan journalist.

Each week, he keeps our readers updated with the latest in county, school, and local government news. It’s something he’s been doing for a long time, with no plans of stopping anytime soon.

But there’s more to John than just writing.

John’s also been an active member of his Lutheran Church. He’s served as the chairman of his congregation. He’s been on the board of elders, and served over 37 years as a member of the International Lutheran Laymen’s League.
Faith, like writing, is a big part of his life.

We caught up with John recently, where he shared with us his story. We learned that John Raffel is more than just another writer. And he’s certainly more than just another face in the crowd.

Marion Press: Where were you born and raised?
John: I was born in ‘55 in Big Rapids. Went to Big Rapids Schools; grades 1-8, I went to St. Peter’s Lutheran. [St. Peter’s] didn’t have kindergarten, so I went to one of the [Big Rapids] elementary schools for kindergarten. I went to Big Rapids High School freshman, sophomore, junior, senior year.
Graduated Big Rapids High School in ’73. Our graduating class was in the low 200s – one of the largest ones they’ve had. They’re not quite as large now – they’re a class B school – but they were pretty large in the ‘70s.

MP: What kept you busy, growing up?
John: I studied a lot. It didn’t come naturally to me – I had to work hard for whatever I got – so if I wanted to get decent grades, I had to study. So I studied a lot. My main thing was school; I wasn’t much into outside activities. I liked to watch TV – which now is kind of the opposite – I don’t watch too much TV nowadays.

MP: What shows did you watch?
John: I liked watching sports shows a lot; I liked your old classics: Andy Griffith Show, Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Bewitched. I think it was the mid to late ‘70s when I started working and I started getting into the late-night hours. Since then I don’t watch too much TV, because now I’m working at night.

MP: Is journalism something you’ve always been interested in? How’d you get your start?
John: About a week ago, I was with a small group of people from our church – people who knew me pretty well from our elementary school – and they mentioned that I used to have a little newspaper called the Weekday Press. Basically, what it was, I’d just scribble out some news clippings, and sports clippings, and distribute them out to [elementary students].

When I was going from 8th grade to 9th grade, a counselor was trying to figure out what classes I should take, and he asked, “What about journalism?” I didn’t even know what the term “journalism” meant back then. And he explained it, and I said, “Oh, yeah. I’m interested in that.”
So I took journalism classes in high school, and I started working on the student newspaper back in high school at Big Rapids in ’71 and ’72 – the paper was called the Cardinal.

MP: What do you enjoy most about writing?
John: Being involved in the activity that you cover; being a part of it. You get involved with sports activities, with coaches and players. Other type of news, you get involved with the actual subject itself: whether you’re covering a village council meeting, or a county board of commissioners meeting. It keeps you involved in that particular subject that’s going on. Otherwise, like any other human being, I doubt that I’d be interested in the subject unless it had a personal impact on me.
When I’m covering it, naturally, there’s an interest there.

MP: Outside of writing, what keeps you busy?
John: To be honest with you, writing is almost 24/7. I write quite a lot. I’ve been involved with the Lutheran Church my whole life. And I’ve been involved in church activities. I’m on the board of elders; I’ve been the chairman of the congregation. I belong to a group called the Lutheran Laymen’s League – it’s an international organization of the entire church body; I’ve been involved with that for about 37 years.

MP: Have you always lived here in central and northern Michigan?
John: From ’76 to ’79, my first professional job was up in the western UP. A weekly newspaper called the L’Anse Sentinel, up near the Houghton area. I was there three and a half years, and I actually loved it up there. In fact, I still have friends up there, and the publisher that hired me back in ’76, he still owns the paper up there. I liked it up there, but when I had a chance to come back down here and work in Big Rapids, I took that opportunity.

MP: What do you enjoy the most about living in this area?
John: It’s an old-fashioned answer, but it’s home. I’m single, which is one of the reasons why I can do all of the work that I do – I keep my own hours. But it’s home. I’m not a big city guy – I like the simplicity of the small-town area. If there was a reason for me to go someplace else, I would, but this is a good convenient place right now for me.

MP: What subject do you enjoy writing about the most?
John: Sports. I like all sports. People ask me what my favorite sport is, and I really don’t have one. I like ‘em all.
MP: So are you a Michigan and Detroit sports fan?
John: I like all the Michigan teams, and all the Detroit teams – I try to keep in touch with them. The Detroit teams are pretty poor right now. The pro sports, and being a Detroit fan can be very challenging.

MP: You were probably too young to remember the ’57 Detroit Lions championship team.
John: Yeah. I do remember watching them on TV, maybe the ’62 season. When they actually had a good team; they were 11-3. I remember watching them on TV as a little kid – back in the era of Alex Karras, Wayne Walker, Terry Barr – they actually had a decent team back in the ‘60s for a while. Since the Ford family bought them, they’ve been very mediocre at best, since the ‘60s. Not much has changed.

MP: Who have been your biggest role models over the years?
John: Parents, pastors, coaches, athletic directors. I don’t know if I’ve had any particular role models. Writing, some of my role models have been co-workers. And I’ve had a chance over the years to meet some of the writers from the big cities, Detroit and Grand Rapids. In the journalism area, I kind of have the philosophy that everyone who writes is a role model: I find out that I can learn something from everybody; what they write about, how they write about it, and the styles that they use. I don’t have any particular role models, but just about everybody that I meet in the profession.

MP: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
John: The old cliché: Work hard, stay busy, and it keeps you out of trouble. I find that the more I work, the less bad habits I pick up. I think the best advice I ever received in journalism was from my freshman journalism teacher back at Ferris State. I went to Ferris after high school, and they had a two-year program that I took. One of the teachers that I had, I remember him saying, the advice he gives to all journalism students: Write, write, write, write, write, write, and then keep writing. Just write as much as you possibly can. Anything you can get your hands on, write about it. The more you do, the better you’re going to get, the more things you’ll learn. I think that was pretty good advice.

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