This morning my father, Rev. Eugene Winkler, passed away at the age of 83 due to complications from a fall at his home in Naperville, IL. He was preceded in death by my mother just two months ago. Dad was lonely without her. Mom called him home to be with her.
Gene Winkler was a United Methodist preacher for more than 60 years. He served local churches in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Illinois. He was acclaimed for the excellence of his preaching. He was a fearless advocate for social justice and used the credibility he attained through his pastoral abilities and his evident love for members of his congregations to push and pull and coax and cajole them to join him in the causes of peace and racial and economic justice.
It seemed as if dad knew the genealogy of each person in his congregations. Our life revolved around the church and everything that meant. Many an hour of our childhood was spent whiled away in the family station wagon while dad visited the sick and infirm. Invariably, our impatience was rewarded with a trip to Baskin Robbins and a visit to Lake Michigan to skip rocks on the water.
There was never a dull moment for those of us who shared daily life with him in those mostly humble Methodist parsonages. Dad rarely rested and on those moments when he closed his eyes on a Sunday afternoon after preaching and we as small children asked him if he was asleep, he replied that he was just resting his eyes. It seemed at most he slept five hours a night. He played competitive racquetball into his 60s and was only satisfied if he won.
Dad was a colorful and controversial figure and, truth be told, many of the stories about him we share amongst ourselves capture much of his essence, but don’t reflect traditional images of a humble and pious preacher. He was all about action and was tireless, literally, in whatever endeavor he was involved in.
A Gene Winkler sermon included quotes from Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, Barth, and Tillich, as well as stories, poetry and while he usually said something that elicited laughter, his sermons were serious and about grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness.
He was the most well-read man I have ever known. One day, he didn’t go to Borders Books and they went out of business. We traded books back and forth for years and years. But, when he would visit my home, I hid my new unread books because he would swipe them when I wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to have to wait for the next visit to get them back.
Dad was born in the Arkansas Delta in the depths of the Great Depression to an auto mechanic who battled alcohol problems and a schoolteacher who stayed home to raise her boys. There wasn’t much money, but there were high expectations. Those three boys went on to become preachers, lawyers, and senior government executives, and they married accomplished women.
Never once did we his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren doubt the authenticity and intensity of his bottomless love for and pride in us. We vacationed at beach and lake houses in Wisconsin, Florida, South and North Carolina for 50 years. He loved long walks on the beach. No one I have ever known loved Christmas morning more than Gene Winkler. He loved biscuits and gravy, homemade ice cream, and taking mom out to their favorite Italian restaurants.
He raised vast sums of money for mission and for his beloved Wiley College. He helped to found Protestants for the Common Good, sat on the state board of the ACLU for years and debated creationists all across Illinois. He knew more about the Civil War and the history of Chicago than most professionals. He knew everyone and traveled everywhere.
He loved all the churches he pastored including the tiny ones in Oklahoma and Missouri that could barely afford to pay him, but most of all he loved being the senior pastor of the great Chicago Temple/First United Methodist Church. Washington Street in downtown Chicago, in front of that 30 story tall church, is named Eugene H. Winkler Way.
He was truly one of a kind and we will miss him forever.