Del Gingrich has a passion for local stories. That’s reflected in his eight books, the latest of which is entitled “Elmira Mennonite Church: A People’s History.”
The book details the lives of families past and present at the church. In it, he talks about some of the earlier features of Elmira, including things he remembers from growing up in the town, like the bowling alley, the Reo Theatre, pool halls at Johnston and Cameron barber shops, and tin-roof ice-cream sundaes at Kares Café.
The church’s first service was held Aug. 31, 1921. He writes that at this time, “A new car cost $256, a new home $7,720. Gas was 24 cents a gallon; sirloin steak, 28 cents a pound. The average annual salary was $2,196.”
“They say to write about things you like, well, what I like are people at the church,” he said of the impetus for the new book.
Today, many things are different, but some things are still the same, like the still-standing clock tower, the old church buildings, the butcher shop, the library or the town’s enduring love for hockey, to name a few.
He decided to write the book because he felt people might have the misconception that all Mennonites are still old fashioned.
“This is more than history, it’s an evolving of a community. And the thinking processes of the people today is different from many, many years ago. Many years ago, a lot of our people went to Grade 8 only. Now we’ve got PhDs – quite a number of them who attend our church, as a matter of fact the wife of the pastor has her PhD. That’s new and different. We have professors, which didn’t exist before in our church.”
He spoke about how his church is now full of people with all sorts of professions, including artists, actors, musicians and government workers.
“When I was a lot younger, things were a lot different,” he said.
“I was thinking if some people who live in the community don’t know this, they have a different view of Mennonites, and that bothered me. I don’t want to knock the horse and buggy, but we’re not horse and buggy. Listen, we’ve done many other things, we’ve become part of this society.
“I don’t know if anybody who is not Mennonite is going to read it, but I wanted them to know that, ‘hey, we are like you now.’”
The book outlines the stories of various families past and present at Elmira Mennonite, beginning when the church was built. He feels that it’s a book some people might be interested in if they care about Mennonites or local history.
Gingrich focused on Elmira Mennonite Church because it is the church he grew up in, and the church he eventually came back to later in life.
The retired school principal loves writing.“Ever since I was in school, I enjoyed writing. And as a matter of fact, when I was in Grade 12, the teacher let me write that Grade 13 composition exam, which sort of was a pat on the back.
“It’s something that has become a part of my regular routine, if you wish. When I don’t do some, I [think] ‘well, what the heck am I going to do?’ Because I’m not good at repairing things or building things. I don’t have any other hobbies, really. Other than that, I read a lot. That becomes a hobby and fills a space that gives me satisfaction,” he said of his writing.
He says he prefers to write outside of his home, and much of his book was written at libraries and local cafés. When he’s deep into preparing a book, he tends to become fully absorbed, writing, “morning, afternoon and evening.”
All told, he estimates he spent 100 or 200 hours on interviews alone for the book. “If people only knew how much work I did,” he said.
How does he feel to be this keeper of local history? Gingrich say passing on history is an important task, and often people don’t realize this until it’s too late.
“I wish my father would have been able to write his story. He passed away and I barely knew him. Same with my brothers and so on. I wish they’d have written their personal stories.”
Even though he loves writing so much, Gingrich says self-doubt can creep in. “It is discouraging. (You think), ‘Geez, is this worth it? I mean, is anybody going to be interested in this type of thing? I don’t know, I’m not a perfectionist, but I think if you do something, you’ve got to do it well.”
He keeps the covers of his books in a joined frame on his wall. One of the frames is empty. He points to it. “That’s my next book,” he jokes.
He’s still deciding what he wants to focus on for his next project, but is considering writing his own story for the sake of his children and grandchildren, “so they know the real Del.”