Classes may change and students may come and go, but the one thing that remains the same at Maranatha Christian Academy in Oakwood is Gale Wineinger.
Like clockwork, Wineinger is there in the halls of Maranatha, praying for students, talking to teachers, all the while, holding a cup of coffee in his hand.
The longtime Maranatha Baptist Church member and World War II-era veteran of the Navy is affectionately known to many as Mr. Wrigley because he always has extra Doublemint gum to hand out to students and anyone else he sees in the hallways.
“I had two brothers and they’d pass out gum and it just became part of their ministry,” said Wineinger, 89. “So I thought I’d just continue it. To me, it’s just to see the surprise on people’s face.”
To the students and staff at Maranatha, it’s about more than that, though, and he’s more than just Mr. Wrigley. He’s a constant in their lives and someone they look up to. Rod Bell, pastor at Maranatha Baptist, said the influence he has on the students doesn’t go unnoticed.
“The kids, they expect him to be around,” Bell said. “And I appreciate that. He’s been very supportive in our ministry, but especially in our academy, because he sees the importance of investing in another generation.”
After pouring a cup of coffee in the school’s cafeteria, he sits down at the end of one of the plastic folding tables and prays. He prays for the students as they eat their snack or lunch around him and as they roam the halls going from class to class.
“I just keep praying that they’ll continue to grow in grace and the knowledge of God,” Wineinger said. “I know they’re not perfect, none of us are. But at least they’ve got a running start in life, at that young age, getting a Christian education.”
Wineinger has seen a lot in his almost 90 years of life.
When he was 17, he got permission from his parents to join the Navy in 1946. His twin brother joined alongside him. Wineinger served on a destroyer for two years in the Mediterranean shortly after World War II ended. During his time in the military, Wineinger said being out on the water was tough, especially when the waves were so tall he couldn’t see out. He said he saw numerous planes crash and was “lucky” to not come across any mines in the water.
“I’ve been blessed a whole lot more than I deserve,” Wineinger said. “The ship that relieved us over there, its propeller got hung up in a cable and drew a mine into it and blew it up.”
He was born and raised in Denison, Texas, and moved all over the country, working for a printing press after his service and before settling in Georgia in 1974.
“I just always wanted to join the Navy,” Wineinger said. “I wish I would have stayed in 20 years.”
Along the way, he went to seminary and became a pastor where he traveled for preaching assignments before going full time with a church.
“It was rough,” Wineinger said. “Before I became a pastor at this one church, you’d go out on preaching assignments and you might drive 100 miles or more and they wouldn’t pay you a penny. Sometimes they’d invite you for a meal, most of the time you were on your own. But it was good training.”
After a falling out at the church he was at, Wineinger went back to the printing business and ended up helping a plant in Oakwood — where his brother had been working — get off the ground.
He’s the only one of his 10 siblings still living, which may be part of the reason he spends so much time at Maranatha. Wineinger said they’ve become a part of him.
“This is the only family I’ve got,” Wineinger said. “I come over here and these little ol’ itty bitty kids run up and down and I have my hand out and I say, ‘Give me five.’ And every one of them give me five. To me they’re just part of my family.”
“The thing I appreciate about Gale has been his willingness to be available and ask, ‘What can I do to help?’” Bell said. “And just being faithful. That’s some great qualities I want our kids to learn and appreciate.”
Bell said “if the doors are open and the roads are able to be passed, he’ll be here.” Wineinger nodded in agreement with his Navy veteran cap in his hand and a pocket full of Doublemint gum.
When asked why he spends his time doing what he does for the school, Wineinger had a simple answer.
“I guess it’s the love that you feel from them,” Wineinger said. “I just do it in a spirit of love. I love you, God loves you, so go for it.”