Pastor Walter Gienapp took off on adventures, living the life of a young hobo; not always knowing where he was headed, but as he journeyed, God had placed the right people in his path at the right time.
Walt was born in Ryan, Iowa with nine brothers and sisters. His parents were Ernest and Wilma Gienapp. He recalls the very day when a life-changing tragedy struck his family. January of 1951 on a Sunday - it is etched in his memory like a chisel to a stone as he remembers. “Dad got up early and told us to go downstairs and get around the stove to get dressed. The stove pipe went through the bottom floor and going up into the chimney. There was a walk-in attic where the stove went up. Something was smoldering in the attic for a while, but we had no idea anything was going on until - poof! When it ignited it was almost an explosion and sent flames down through the stove pipe and the house was inflamed,” Walt describes.
He was just 10 years old. Walt’s 13-year-old and nine-month-old sisters were still upstairs asleep. His father cried out, “Get out of the house!” and grabbed a bucket of water. He yelled, “Where’s your mother?”
Wilma had gone upstairs for Walt’s sisters. With the smoke obstructing a path to find his wife, Ernie ran upstairs with the bucket of water in a futile attempt to save her and their two daughters.
With flames curling around the house, the smoke so thick, burning his eyes and suffocating him, he couldn’t get to his wife. He knew if he tried to save her, he could die as well. Ernie looked down the stairs and saw Walt and his older brother Ray watching. “He was a serious husband and father; we were his world. Dad threw the bucket of water and came back downstairs to make sure we were all safe.” Walt recalls.
“We went around to the back of the house because we thought we heard someone screaming. We had no ladder, no telephone, no running water, the car wouldn't start – and we were really up in the hills. We got on the tractor and drove to the nearest neighbor and they called the fire department,” Walt says.
With no time to really grieve the loss of his wife and children, Ernie was now a single father with his remaining eight children to care for. At first it was overwhelming and the children were dispersed, staying with various families while Ray and Walt stayed with their father.
When summer came, Walt’s aunt came to stay with them for about a year until she married. Things becoming a little easier, Walt remembers he and his brother helping on the farm and the family just pulling together on their own. The inward guilt his father felt drove him to escape with alcohol from time to time. “My father was a weekend alcoholic; come Monday he sobered up and went to work. He was a hard worker,” Walt says.
Walt and Ray quit school to farm. After a few weeks, Ray decided that he wanted to go back to school. It took a few more days for Walt to follow his brother’s lead, but he decided to go back to school too.
The family moved around. In the little town of Quasqueton, Iowa, a high school classmate asked Walt to go to Sunday school one Sunday. He went to church and eventually attended Sunday school. “The pastor preached like ‘you must be a Christian or you wouldn’t be here’,” Walt said. “After about a year a preacher came and preached a ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ kind of sermon. I had never heard the message like that before. I had never really thought of Jesus as a person. All by myself, I got on my knees by my bed one night and when I got up – it was all settled,” Walt affirms.
During his senior year of high school, Walt was called to the ministry. He said there was no magnificent sign or loud audible voice, but he simply felt a burning within his heart. He struggled with wanting to farm and his calling. “One day down by the river talking to the Lord, after having said ‘no’ to this call I finally said 'yes' and never turned back,” Walt declared.
With adulthood thrust upon him and his brother early, the two boys were ready to ‘seek their treasure’, ‘spread their wings’ and, as the 1936 film title says, ‘Go West, Young Man’. Walt and his brother took off!
“We hit the freight train and went ‘hobo’. We had a duffle bag, we had lunch and we had money in our shoes, ending up in Omaha on a Sunday. We jumped off to get a little food, but the train went on. We waited for another train – nothing came. We tried to catch other trains but they were going too fast to jump on with one hand – so we thought of throwing our bags on the next train that had an opening and use two hands. Well, you know what happened,” Walt laughs, “we never saw our bags again.”
The two young adventurers hitch-hiked, slept in trucks and even slept in a hearse (it was empty). They finally caught a train with Union and Pacific Railroad on a line that goes through Colorado just at the tip of Cheyenne, Wyoming. In Cheyenne, there were railroad detectives and flood lights shining under the trains and above the trains.
“We threw our bags on a flatbed; they found us, of course, booted us off the train, put handcuffs on us and arrested us. They could see we were harmless children and asked where we were headed. We told them ‘Idaho’ and they told us if we would buy a ticket, they wouldn’t take us to jail,” Walt says.
The boys purchased a ticket and looked for another place to sleep that evening. Walt and his brother faced three police officers walking the streets. “Show us an I.D.” they instructed. The officers informed the young men that they could not let them run the streets and took them in for booking but said when they see the judge in the morning, to show him the train tickets and he will probably let them go.
Could it be that God saw their need for shelter and food and with staying the night in jail with a little slop lunged at them was His provision the boys weren’t privy to?
The young travelers pled guilty before the judge and he fined them $25 apiece. He peered down at Walt and Ray and said in a low voice, “But I will forget the whole thing if you get out of town before sundown.”
Walter recently took a trip to Cheyenne and decided to try to find the record of his and his brother’s arrest. Taking his grandchildren to the library, granddaughter Abigail found their names among all the pages in the archives. “Ray Gienapp, Walter Gienapp, Aug. 20, vagrancy, 25.00 fines suspended if defendants leave town,” Walt recites.
Walt and his brother Ray went on to Idaho and found themselves working in the kitchen of a lodge in Sun Valley where it was rumored that Ernest Hemingway was staying. Walt eventually headed back towards Iowa.
The irony of Walt’s life is remarkable. He had dated a girl named Naomi in his youth and attended a presbyterian church with her where the grandfather of his future daughter in-law, Jenny, Max Belz preached. He and Naomi attended a graduation ceremony of Joel Belz (who happened to be Jenny’s father.) Little did he know that he and Joel Belz would share grandchildren in the future.
Max Belz was a co-founder of Covenant College, at that time located in St. Louis, where Walt would attend and eventually meet his bride, Carole DePrine. “It took me 10 years to finish seven years of school,” Walt claims.
Walt and Carole had four sons and then adopted four more children. The couple moved around as he pastored various churches - even one in Nova Scotia. When he was not pastoring he was teaching or working odd jobs until the Lord led him to another church.
With Walt’s meandering, he was surely blessed to have Carole by his side with more uprooting. “I always thought of it as an adventure” she says. “I was always dedicated to the fact that he had a calling in the ministry and I was going to be supportive no matter what. I have instilled that in our children as well. We are a family and this is what God has called him to do,” Carole maintains.
She fondly recalls the walks they took while in college. Walter chimes in, “We fell in love over the dishpan - tell her how you took advantage of me!” he quips. Carole smiles and admits, “I did – I would get him to sub for me at work if I couldn’t be there that night to finish my dishes. Usually students would trade off if one worked another’s shift.” Walt grins adoringly at his wife “… and I would never ask her to pay me back.”
Carole vows, “On my first day of college, I had told my roommate when I saw him pushing a broom around - I said, ‘Ooh I’m gonna marry him!’ before I even met him,” she laughs. Walt adds, “I have been pushing brooms and doing dishes for her ever since!”
In 2000 Walt and Carole moved to be with their children who were at or had attended Covenant College on Lookout Mountain.
“Seven of my eight children brought us to Chattanooga,” he says. “We were connected to Covenant and our children started going to Covenant. They kind of collected here in Chattanooga, so we moved here,” Walt says.
The irony of Walt’s past meeting with his future continues as daughter in-law Jenny recalls meeting the Gienapps in the early 70s. She and their son Andy were playmates as toddlers when she visited her grandparents. Jenny didn’t really keep up with the family after that. “I re-met Andy when I got to Covenant as a freshman. He was already a sophomore - and the rest is history! We do love our story and our dads do too,” Jenny says.
Walt now pastors a church in Lookout Valley called Mountain View Presbyterian.
The relationship with his father ebbed and flowed. “He was my hero growing up as I watched his work ethics and I respected how he just kept going. Then I realized he was made out of flesh – we had a falling out and I criticized him through the years. When he lay dying of cancer, everyone was quite sure he became a Christian on his death bed, and he actually set another example for me – that he was never afraid of dying. He faced death up to his last days that he was conscious with absolute good cheer,” Walt says.
God had protected Walter when he lost his mother, “The day my mother died, I didn’t even cry. There have been times since which I recognized the grief that my father must have felt. I really wonder what life must have been like for him without my mother. All these serious things occurred to me years later. I hope I have allowed myself to grieve over it – I am sorry for my dad and my brother and sisters,” Walt settles.
“Knowing God is in charge of everything and by God’s grace I have been able to say – ‘it’s your show, God- it’s yours’.”