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Editorial: Mr. B. was Gainesville's own Mother Teresa
Humble upbringing led to Gene Becksteins open arms, giving heart as community icon
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Most of us want to do right by those in need around us, but those intentions don’t always lead to actions. We might see someone seeking spare change along the highway exit or in the town square, reach for our wallet, but often ask ourselves: “Is a couple dollars going to make a difference?”

Many go well beyond that in their efforts, but even in a giving community such as ours, the need always overwhelms their good intentions.

One such person in our midst did not settle for half measures, instead making it much of his life’s work to put his beliefs into action. For 30 years, Gene Beckstein fed the hungry and provided beds for the area’s homeless at the Good News at Noon ministry he founded in Gainesville along with his late wife, Margie. For decades, they gave those who lacked hope a full belly, a pillow to lie on and a bit of Christian love to fill the other empty places within them.

“Mr. B” died last week at age 93 after a period of declining health. He had stepped down as acting director of Good News last fall as the years took their toll, but rest assured, his stamp will always remain on the mission he began.

Beckstein founded the shelter in 1987. The Davis Street site now is supported by dozens of local churches, and offers a food pantry program and summer school programs for children.

No individual has done more in the last three decades to offer prayers, love and a helping hand to those who desperately need it. And he did so with open arms untainted by judgment or rancor.

Those who knew Beckstein best remember him that way. Here are a few, in their words:

Ben Parker, board chairman and a volunteer for Good News at Noon: “He had a magnetic personality that made the difficult seem easy and gave you hope and it made you want to volunteer. And he didn’t have to go build a big organization. It just sort of gathered around those simple attributes of service. ... He didn’t ever worry about the mechanics of how to get something done. Most people would stop and have a boardroom meeting. He would just love people. The rest would figure itself out.”

The Rev. Terry Walton, senior pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church: “He definitely was the hands and feet and heart of Christ to those who were going through less than desirable times in their lives. He was Christ-like, he really was. I would call him the Mother Teresa of Gainesville. He never was one who made you feel like less of a person because you weren’t as all-in, if you will, as he was.”

The Rev. Bill Coates of First Baptist Church in Gainesville: “He probably did more for the poor of this community than anybody I’ve ever known. He could inspire people in such simple ways, and he inspired them not just by his words, but every word was backed up by his own actions in his own life. He will be greatly missed in Gainesville. What impressed me so much about him was not just what he did, but his very humble spirit with which he did it all.”

That humility was his lasting legacy, and what inspired from others the same level of affection he showed everyone.

Beckstein could relate to the downtrodden souls he served because, as a young man, he was one of them. He grew up in the mean streets of New York City in a troubled home. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, he suffered through a life of homelessness and crime himself while living in Chicago in his 20s.

It was a high school baseball coach who convinced him to use the GI Bill to get an education. He did, attending New York University and earning two master’s degrees. After that, he spent the next 37 years working in public schools, including time as a teacher and administrator in Michigan and then in Gainesville at E.E. Butler and Gainesville high schools.

He retired from teaching in the 1980s but soon found a new calling when he and Margie began serving meals to needy neighbors out of their home. From that, the Good News ministry began and grew into what it is now: A vital community resource that provides beds, meals, groceries and, most of all, fellowship and love.

The homeless residents who visit Good News don’t exactly get their meals for free. Mr. B would insist all who are served should memorize a Bible verse in English and complete an assignment to receive food. To him, it meant the recipient was earning what they received, not just getting a handout. And while many may complete the task begrudgingly just to get fed, those messages can connect with many and help them find the right path in life.

“Just to give the food away, it’s not right,” Beckstein said once. “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.”

But even then, there were no harsh feelings or rebukes, just love, a fork and a bed. To Mr. B, we were indeed all God’s children, some just born or steered into worse circumstances than others, but everyone worthy of their fellow man’s shared benevolence.

We all can learn from his example and do our part to carry forward the work he began at Good News. There is no better way to remember him or honor that memory than to dig into that wallet next time and find room in our hearts and under our roofs for Mr. B’s neediest souls.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.

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