Just before Christmas, on December 22nd, Gary Riegel, my father-in-law, entered glory and saw his Savior—faith became sight. It was an outcome we had been praying for because we were certain of his genuine salvation. His death after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was quick–less than a year, but it was also God’s mercy.
Gary was born in Cody, Wyoming and spent most of his growing up years there, but spent most of his life in Laramie, Wyoming. The move was necessary, and there is a story behind it.
Gary’s father, Ted, was a sniper for the Marines in World War II, and he fought in the Island-hopping campaigns of the South Pacific. It’s hard for us to imagine how stressful and dangerous this necessary service was. One night, so the story goes, the pressure broke Ted’s good friend, Francis. He started making noise that was going to give away their position, so Ted had to shoot his friend. That’s the story the family has told; it seems the type of thing that could happen in war. What we know for sure is that Francis died, and Ted named his only child, Gary Francis Riegel, in his buddy’s memory.
What Ted experienced in the war changed him. He came back and ever after struggled with drinking. Gary’s early years were years of consistent disappointment. He loved his dad, but his dad was trapped by his own sin.
One example suffices. He promised Gary he would take him fishing. They drove off, and his dad said he needed to make a quick stop at a bar. He left Gary in the truck and went inside, and probably thought he would only be inside for a single drink, but he stayed there for hours. His young son finally got tired of waiting, got out of the truck, and walked home. Disappointments like that were normal for Gary as he grew up.
Ted was spending so much on alcohol that there wasn’t enough to buy groceries, so his wife made the tough decision of separating from him and moving to Laramie. Martha, Gary’s mom, never divorced his dad, but she never lived with him again. Even though they were separated, she loved him, and never said anything critical about him.
Martha had never heard the gospel until her brother-in-law and sister-in-law shared it with her. She was gloriously saved and through her witness, Gary trusted Christ too. He graduated from Laramie High in 1967 and married his teenage bride, Grace. Many marriages that start that early don’t last, but Gary and Grace were married over 45 years until her death.
They had nothing at the beginning; they were poor. But Gary and Grace always had their four children in church. They were of the generation that came every time the doors were open, and the doors were open a lot.
Gary started a body shop in 1976 that his oldest son owns today. Eventually the business grew and Gary and Grace had some extra room in their budget. Gary was a generous man with what God had given him. He supported several students at Bible college through the years, and he did it anonymously. He wanted them to believe that they could trust God for their needs. He supported his church at a generous level, and also supported missionaries, camp ministries, and many family members and friends. He used what God had blessed him with to bless others.
He was a godly layman for his entire adult life. He pursued Christ wholeheartedly. He was the first to volunteer when a ministry needed some physical labor. One of my youngest son’s memories is his grandpa taking him to a Christian camp in Wyoming and the two of them working on a building crew all week. That was Gary Riegel. When Laura and I were young marrieds and bought our first house, Gary would come out to North Carolina and put up a fence or build a small deck or whatever we needed. He was a servant. Through the years he served his small church as a deacon and also as treasurer.
Christ’s work in Gary’s life became increasingly evident. Like many of his generation, he didn’t have a lot of time for his children when they were young; he was always working. But he grew in Christ and made time for his adult children, their wives, and his grandkids. He was being sanctified.
My father-in-law was my go to guy for advice on cars, houses, and well… anything that required being handy. He patiently helped me. It was only a few years ago that I realized how merciful God had been to me through my in-laws. People make jokes about conflict with in-laws, and as a pastor I saw in-law situations that were very difficult. But Grace and Gary were a joy to me. They were kind and generous and humble. Gary was a godly father-in-law. Using his name in this blog is a bit jarring because I simply called him Dad.
When he retired, he and his wife would often start the day by listening to a sermon on the radio and talk about what they learned. They read God’s Word together. Grace died in 2014; they had a marriage that glorified God. Gary married Susan, and they were married until his death. She was a wonderful Christian woman whose husband had died a few years earlier.
Gary Riegel was a good man because Jesus saved him decades ago. He wasn’t naturally good. He was the only child of a drunk father, raised by his mother alone, and he married too young. Life was stacked against Gary, but he became a new creation when he trusted Christ as his Savior (2 Cor 5:17). Jesus takes rebels and makes them good through Christ’s righteousness. I’m thankful for my father-in-law’s salvation; he made some missteps as we all do, but he pursued Jesus with all his heart. When he could no longer remember his family members, he could still sing Amazing Grace–the grace of God that he never got over. He left a legacy where his grandkids can see God’s goodness. I hope my kids will remember their grandpa, be thankful, and pursue Christ like he did.