Tucson pastor dies from COVID-19

Karen L. Willoughby | Aug 10, 2020

Over the years, Pastor Gary Marquez led most of the members of North Swan Baptist Church in Tucson to the Lord.

The church where about 110 people pre-COVID gathered for Sunday morning worship baptized a dozen people in 2019, and more than 100 over the last 10 years.

Marquez had a part in 1975 in a different kind of salvation for the lost. It happened two years before he became a Christian in Southern California in 1977.

Marquez, who worked in personnel for the U.S. Navy, was part of Operation Babylift, when 2,000 Vietnamese and Asian-American orphans were airlifted from Saigon in the waning days of the war on orders from U.S. President Gerald Ford. Marquez processed paperwork at Los Alamitos Air Station in southern California for children numbed by the horrors of war coupled with the loss of their parents.

“He liked to tell jokes. He was a great guy to be around,” John Guillott, director of evangelism/missions for Catalina Baptist Association, said of Gary Marquez.

The Marquez Family

“My dad has the gift of gab,” said Andrew Marquez. The younger Marquez is executive pastor of North Swan Baptist Church and executive director of Wayland Baptist University Arizona, with campuses in Phoenix, Tucson and Sierra Vista. Since Father’s Day, the younger Marquez also has been leading Sunday worship services at the church, online since June 28.

“My dad never met a stranger, and they all became his friends,” Andrew Marquez continued. “He would find a plumber and lead him to Christ. He’d have a landscaper do some work around the church and lead him to Christ. Our church is just full of people like that.”

The past-tense references to Gary, the elder Marquez, age 66, are because the senior pastor died July 6 after a less-than-three-week bout of COVID-19.

“We don’t know where it came from, probably a chance meeting at a store,” Andrew Marquez said. “My aunt, the church secretary, got it but she’s doing okay. No one outside of our family got infected. We’re grateful the church didn’t have an outbreak.”

Gary Marquez had been “fighting something” — perhaps a cold — for a week, and on Father’s Day was too sick to preach, said his son, who filled the pulpit that day, June 21. The next Saturday, with a blood oxygen level of 70 — it should be near 100 — the elder Marquez and former Navy sailor was admitted to the VA hospital in Tucson. He was able to visit with his family by phone that night, when he told them he loved them, before being placed on a ventilator on Sunday. He died after being on that ventilator for seven days.

“It moved very fast for him,” Andrew Marquez said. “We couldn’t go to the hospital to see him but had a Zoom meeting July 5 to say goodbye.”

Gary Marquez’ family was his main interest outside of church, his son said. He and his wife Dianna, married 46 years, have a daughter, Kate, three sons — Andrew, Vincent, and Freddy — and four grandsons. The church’s ministries since 1999 have included Carden Christian Academy Central, where Dianna is director of the school with  (pre-COVID) about 75 students. 

“It’s a small church on the corner, so it’s all-consuming,” Andrew Marquez said. “When you do what you love, you don’t need to do other things.”

Gary Marquez loved people. He loved evangelism. He had led North Swan Baptist Church to be a major contributor to the success of Crossover Phoenix, part of the 2011 annual meeting for the Southern Baptist Convention, state leaders said.

“Pastor Gary had a great love for his family, his congregation and his community,” said David Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention. “More than anything else, he loved telling people about Jesus.”

Guillott spoke of Gary Marquez’ partnership with the association, state convention and denomination of Southern Baptists. “He was a man of deep faith and commitment,” Guillott said. “Whatever he was committed to, he was committed to … faithful day in and day out, year in and year out.”

The example of his parents set Gary Marquez on a life of commitment and faithfulness. The hard work and radiant love of his parents carried over to his life even before he joined the Navy right out of high school. While a Vietnam-era veteran, the closest he got to that war was the work he did on Operation Babylift.

With children as young as 3, 4 and 5 — some the outcast children of alliances with American soldiers — roaming the streets, crawling into corners to sleep, several international children’s aid groups had begged the United States and its allies for help getting the children to safety, where they could be adopted. Marquez’ jovial personality at the southern California military station in 1975 helped lift the wartime tension amid the humanitarian effort taking place while Saigon was being overrun by the North Vietnamese.

While Gary Marquez grew up in church, it was two years after his involvement with Operation Babylift that he made the decision to make Jesus his personal Lord and Savior.After he completed his military service, he moved to Texas and became an insurance agent. In 1981, Marquez moved from Texas to Tucson with his wife and daughter, Kate, to be the district manager for Equitable Life, an insurance company.

Soon after moving to Tucson in June 1981, the young Marquez family joined North Swan Baptist Church under the ministry of family friend Pastor Herb Franks. In time, he became a deacon and congregational song leader, and six years after joining the church, Marquez began filling the pulpit on Sunday for the ailing pastor. He began to sense God’s call to the pastorate.

When Pastor Franks retired for health reasons, the congregation asked Marquez to be their pastor.

“We prayed about it as a family, and decided to stay in Tucson,” Andrew Marquez recalled. “Instead of going away to get his education, Dad took courses by correspondence at Covington Theological Seminary. He was always big on education,” and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Theology.

“I’ve gone to work with him every day for 12 years before going on to Wayland,” the pastor’s son continued. “I’m just going to miss his presence.”

Funeral arrangements have not been made because of Dianna Marquez’ own battle with COVID, though she has now recovered. A memorial service in September is a possibility, but the decision is his mom’s to make, Andrew said.

Senior Pastor Marquez’ Bible and glasses still sit on the pulpit where he left them, according to a local news report. However, Associate Pastor Marquez says his father’s legacy is not in that building. “His legacy is in his parishioners and it’s in his family,” he said, KOLD News reported.

“Arizona Southern Baptists are saddened by the loss of one of our faithful pastors, Gary Marquez, who served North Swan Baptist Church for over 32 years,” AZSBC Executive Director Johnson said. “Pastor Gary personally baptized over 80 percent of the people in his church. He will be greatly missed but there are many people in heaven today and many more who will join Him there because of his ministry!”

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