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Good News at Noon: A story of service

Gene Beckstein and his life of service are chronicled in a book honoring the life of Billy Graham

POSTED: March 21, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

Gene Beckstein, right, calls people to lunch Thursday at Good News at Noon.

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Gene Beckstein knows what it means to be hungry. He was homeless on the streets of Chicago after serving as a Marine in World War II.

"I wanted to start a feeding program because I was homeless myself," Beckstein said.

Dubbed "Good News at Noon," Beckstein’s feeding program regularly serves more than 150 people each day. And local writer Gloria Stargel tells Beckstein’s story, which relates the events of his life from his crime-ridden childhood in the slums of New York City to his growing ministry and homeless shelter in Gainesville, in a new tribute book that honors the life and works of Billy Graham.

Beckstein was initially influenced by Billy Graham while working with the evangelist as an athletic director for a children’s camp in Syracuse, N.Y.

Beckstein said Graham’s humility moved him to take action to help others through Christian ministry, and he took troubled children under his wing throughout his 37-year career as a teacher and administrator in Michigan and Georgia public schools, including stints at E.E. Butler and Gainesville high schools.

And he later reached out to the homeless and street people of the Gainesville community when he began to serve lunch at Melrose Apartments on Davis Street in January of 1990.

"His wife, Margie, cooked the meatloaf ... and he said, ‘anybody hungry come eat,’" Stargel said. "So they started coming and they’ve been coming ever since. And he still feeds them."

"We fed 12 guys that day, and the next day 20 guys came in," Beckstein said.

Beckstein, affectionately referred to as "Mr. B" at Good News at Noon, has grown the program, originally run out of the community building at Melrose Apartments, into a building on Davis Street that has a shelter with 13 beds for the homeless; an after school program that provides a safe place to study for 90 children.

Beckstein said a 30-bed addition to the shelter is in the works.

He said he never asks for a thing, but 55 churches and approximately 400 volunteers contribute their service, food and money to the program each year.

The 85-year-old former grade-school principal said the hungry and homeless must memorize a Bible verse each week in English, and must do a fill-in-the-blank homework handout, written in both English and Spanish for immigrants, in order to receive food.

Beckstein said he has been teaching English to Spanish-speaking immigrants each Thursday night and Saturday morning for two years at the shelter.

"Just to give the food away, it’s not right," Beckstein said. "The apostle Paul says if you don’t work, you don’t eat. If they do the homework, they eat supper here and get a box of food."

Beckstein said all walks of life are welcome to eat at the Davis Street shelter.

"I used to be a drinking person a long time ago, and then the Lord saved me and stopped me from taking drugs and drinking," he said.

Beckstein, no stranger to the rough life, said his father was an alcoholic and he grew up in a violent home in the projects of New York City.

After serving as a nurse in the Marine Corps, Beckstein returned to the criminal activity of his youth while living in Chicago. But after a high school baseball coach tracked him down and convinced him to use the GI Bill to fund his education, Beckstein attended New York University, earned two master’s degrees and spent the next 37 years teaching in public school administration.

"I hear a lot of reports from when he was teaching school here," Stargel said. "Anytime they had some teenager in trouble, they’d send them to him and he’d work with them. He’s always had that tender spot in his heart because of how he grew up.

"And he knew that if somebody gave them a chance, they might could make it because somebody gave him a chance," Stargel said.

In addition to raising eight children, Beckstein and his wife gave temporary homes to 48 children throughout his teaching career. But Mr. B has touched the lives of many who were often overlooked.

Thomas Ramirez is one former homeless person and gang member who Beckstein positively influenced.

Ramirez currently lives in the Good News at Noon shelter with his wife and three daughters, and has helped Beckstein to run the ministry for the past 12 years.

"A lot of people gave up on me, but he never gave up on me and that’s why I’m here today," Ramirez said.

"It’s a battlefield here," he said, as he opened a suitcase containing roughly 50 knives and a few guns he has removed from the hands of children. "I believe Mr. B is an angel God sent to me."

But the center is just another form of ministry, Beckstein said.

"We minister to people that churches do not want," he said. "This is not a condemnation of any church, it’s just a fact."

Beckstein’s story, ghost written by Stargel, appears in the Billy Graham tribute, "Led to Believe."

Beckstein and Stargel will hold a book signing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday at Frames You-Nique in Gainesville.



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