Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Oct 13 2012 12:13 PM

HERB BENHAM: Legacy will last longer than his time among us

By The Bakersfield Californian

Al Wagner died two weeks ago. Tuesday was his "Going Home" ceremony at Valley Baptist. If there is a "Going Home," Al is going.

Missionary, humanitarian, precinct walker, encourager, loyal son, writer of thank-you notes, solid Okie stock, lover of popcorn and World War II movies.

Before the funeral, a slide show -- pictures of Al as an earnest young man -- did me in. "Amazing Grace" on the amazing sound system at Valley Baptist didn't help either. "Amazing Grace" is a stretch for most of us. Not Al.

There is no faking people out at your funeral. Seven hundred people showed up. That's the way it is for the givers. You couldn't have paid them to stay away.

That was Wendy Wayne and that was Al Wagner. Friends who couldn't come to the funeral sent emails and letters from all over the world. For Al, that included fellow missionaries in Central America, where he spent eight years.

Politics seems important right now, but it isn't. At least it wasn't Tuesday when Congressman Kevin McCarthy spoke of his friendship and shared faith with a man who sat on the other side of the aisle. McCarthy's voice broke at the end.

This is what kind of man Al Wagner was. Roger Spradlin, pastor at Valley Baptist, was on a two-week vacation in Hawaii when he received the call from his fellow pastor, Phil Neighbors, that Al had died.

"I'm coming back," Spradlin said.

Come back he did, and Spradlin delivered the Gospel. Eloquently and forcefully. He told us Al once founded a church for the deaf. Al was fluent in Spanish as well as American Sign Language.

Al was a detail man and didn't want to leave his funeral to chance. He wanted the attendees to sing seven hymns, old-fashioned hymns. We didn't sing seven, but we sang two: "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder."

Al was 56 and though 56 will always be young, there was a fullness about his life. Although much was left undone, more was accomplished.

"Al walked fast," Neighbors said. "Maybe he knew he didn't have that long to live."

A few years ago, Neighbors wanted to honor the veterans in a program at Valley Baptist. Al, who was a member of the church, told him, "I know every veteran in town. You need to come and see me."

Neighbors did and when he walked into his office, he noticed a big Bible on Al's desk.

"Look, you didn't have to impress me and bring your Bible in," Neighbors said.

"That Bible is always on my desk," Al said, not skipping a beat.

The Bible was tattered, used and thumbed through.

It was comforting to find out that Al wasn't perfect. He could be critical, some said, frugal to the point of being cheap. Although he was frugal with the clothes he wore and the car he drove, when it came to funding missionaries in Central America or buying food or clothes for a needy family, there was nobody more generous.

I remember him helping Sue in her first campaign for City Council. He walked precincts with us week after week. He encouraged, not only Sue, but a generation of politicians, preachers, and people.

As Neighbors said, Al, who was blunt, loved two of the most unlovable groups of people on earth -- politicians and preachers.

"A lot of you didn't know he was married," said State Sen. Mike Rubio. "He was married to humanity."

There aren't many people you could say that about and have it ring true, but Allen DeWayne Wagner was one.

Monday, the day after he died, Sue received a note from Al. She had helped with his mother when she was ill.

Al's note said, "Thank you for all you did to get care for my mother during her time of trial and tribulation. I will never forget it. If there's anything I can do for you or your family, please let me know."

Grew up in Wasco. Moved to Bakersfield. Going home.

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