Bishop George Hagler, founder of True Vine Church, dead at 97

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George Hagler. | Provided

Bishop George A. Hagler “spared no expense” when helping others. Pastor of the church he founded, True Vine Church of God in Christ, he took care of the community around him, helping them pay gas bills, get vehicles for work — even buy homes.

“If I could collect just from the family and friends who still owe him money, I would have a whole lot of money,” said John W. Fountain, Mr. Hagler’s grandson and a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. Hagler, a bishop in the Church of God in Christ, died at age 97 last month at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park

Born in 1921, Mr. Hagler was raised by his grandfather, Burton Roy, who was born a slave.

Mr. Hagler had no high school diploma but worked hard, eventually becoming a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. He held that job 20 years, until 1988.

True Vine started in 1973 on Chicago’s West Side, then moved to Bellwood in 1988 after a fire destroyed its Chicago location.

“True Vine came along in the nick of time” for Fountain, who said he had needed something in his life to hold on to. He said the church became an “anchor” in the community, and Mr. Hagler was a mentor to its members.

Bishop George Hagler, (right) founded True Vine Church of God in Christ in 1973. His grandson, John, is at left. | Provided Photo/John W. Fountain

Bishop George Hagler, (right) founded True Vine Church of God in Christ in 1973. His grandson, John, is at left. | Provided Photo/John W. Fountain

“In a place where there was so much fatherlessness, having someone who is a pillar of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a father, having someone speak life into you as a young man and call you by your name instead of the kinds of negative things that so many young black men get called in a place that is supposed to lift them up, really goes a long way,” Fountain said.

Mr. Hagler loved returning Downstate to his tiny hometown of Pulaski to show his grandchildren and great-grandchildren where he grew up. Though his family was poor, Hagler enjoyed his childhood.

“On a good clear night, you could … almost count the stars in the sky,” Mr. Hagler would say of Pulaski.

Fountain said he was inspired by Mr. Hagler, especially since his own father left the family when Fountain was a child. He would watch his grandfather, trying to learn his proud walk.

“I remember him coming home when I was a kid with his empty mail satchel flung over his shoulder and whistling,” Fountain said. “It sounds … almost like something out of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ but … it just instilled in me this sense of a man who enjoyed his life, who took care of his family, who believed in family above all.”

Mr. Hagler’s wife, Margaret Hagler — they married in 2002 after his first wife, Florence Geneva Hagler, died — said her husband was crazy about his grandchildren. He also took care of those in need, sometimes letting his own kids walk to church so he could give rides to others who lived farther away.

“He just loved people. He really had a heart for people,” Mrs. Hagler said.

She said Mr. Hagler loved to travel. They went to Hawaii for their honeymoon, and even as they got older, he’d suggest vacations. When she asked what they’d do since they couldn’t walk too far, he’d say they could sit in a hotel and look out the window.

His great-grandson, John W. Fountain III, said he remembers his great-grandfather picking him up to go driving.

“He would get in the car and put us in the car sometimes and just drive with him on the expressways or go to visit other family members. I think those were really intimate times,” Fountain III said. “He loved the open roads.”

Fountain III said most memories of his great-grandfather are of him as a pastor, since the whole family went to his church.

“Everybody attended True Vine Church of God in Christ,” he said. “It was never like separating the two.”

John Fountain said Mr. Hagler’s preaching focused on the nuts and bolts of Scripture — more about teaching, and less about firing up the congregation.

Mr. Hagler was a U.S. Navy veteran and served in World War II. He loved a good barbecue and enjoyed attending his family reunion in Indianapolis each year. He also loved to laugh, Fountain said.

His favorite comedian?

“Himself,” his grandson said.

Survivors include his wife, Margaret Hagler, sister Earlene Campbell, eight children and stepchildren, 24 grandchildren, 55 great-grandchildren and 26 great-great-grandchildren.

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