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Founder gone, but foundation of generosity standing strong

One of the qualities the late John Wainwright was known for was his generosity. The founder of the Helping Hand at Christmas program, co-sponsored by the Merced Sun-Star and The Salvation Army, is remembered by friends and loved ones for his giving nature.

Wainwright may be gone, but his beloved Helping Hand soldiers on this holiday season.

Wainwright, 84, died Sept. 4 after a three-year battle with cancer. A real estate agent, builder and developer, Wainwright moved to Merced in 1955 and quickly immersed himself in business, professional and philanthropic causes.

After noticing a similar Christmas giving program in the Monterey Peninsula Herald newspaper, Wainwright approached Sun-Star management 25 years ago, and Helping Hand was born. During those two decades, more than $1 million has been raised to help those in need over the holidays.

Pete Fluetsch had known Wainwright since he moved to Merced.

"He was an honest guy and hard-working," Fluetsch said. "He had a feeling to help out the person who didn't have what he did. He was so generous himself that people wanted to give to his cause. He was just a wonderful guy."

Wainwright's widow, Barbara, said her husband was raised during the Depression and grew up poor. She said the Helping Hand program was something he enjoyed doing and he would begin worrying about that year's program in the middle of September.

Capt. Joel Harmon, the Merced Salvation Army's commander, said he knew Wainwright for two years and he was very passionate about the people of Merced, especially the less fortunate.

"It was a joy to know him," Harmon said. "The Salvation Army was so much a part of him. He came from humble beginnings and worked hard. He was in a position to help those in need. He seemed to know everyone in the community. He was an outgoing, kind man who enjoyed people."

A native of Hamilton City near Chico, Wainwright joined the Navy at the end of World War II. He then attended Chico State University, graduating in 1950 with a degree in business administration.

During his college days, Wainwright and his brother Dick operated two service stations. He started in the real estate business when he moved to Merced 56 years ago.

Elaine Gale has inherited some of Wainwright's duties with Helping Hand, particularly keeping a record of donations made to The Salvation Army. She worked with Wainwright for nearly 10 years.

"He had such a giving heart," Gale said. "He always enjoyed the stories I shared with him about different people. It was not just a job; it was personal for him. He was a very generous man."

Also involved in the founding of the Love Inc. Christian ministry, Wainwright served as an elder at Central Presbyterian Church in Merced and served on the board of United Way, the Merced County Jail Ministry and the

Merced Golf and Country Club. He also was the 1963 president of the Merced County Board of Realtors.

Wainwright joined the Salvation Army advisory board in 1965 and helped serve breakfast Thursday mornings at the group's headquarters on West 12th Street.

Jim Rosa of Merced was a good friend and golfing buddy of Wainwright's who helped the Helping Hand program for five years. He said Wainwright was one of the most compassionate people he had ever met.

"His attitude toward other people was wonderful," Rosa said.

"He was always for the downtrodden. He was very supportive of programs and people that needed help."

With his wife, evangelist William Booth was co-founder of the organization in the 19th century. Booth was reading a printer's proof of the 1878 annual

report, according to the Salvation Army website, "when he noticed the statement 'The Christian Mission is a volunteer army.' Crossing out the words 'volunteer army,' he penned in 'Salvation Army.' From those words came the basis of the foundation deed of The Salvation Army."

John Wainwright carried on that tradition in Merced, to the benefit of thousands.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or