He has become one of the most honored and revered men in Kansas history.
He has been awarded the Medal of Honor, lauded by the president of the United States and inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.
He is being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church for his selfless courage and personal example on the battlefields of Korea and in the brutal prisoner-of-war camp where he eventually died in 1951.
Yet for more than half a century, almost everyone in Emil Kapaun’s home diocese of Wichita has been mispronouncing his name.
Kapaun’s nephew, Ray, explained how that oddity came about during remarks in April at the ceremony in Washington, D.C., where the chaplain was inducted into the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.
Emil, his parents and his brother all pronounced the name “Ka-PAWN,” he said. That’s how the prisoners of war who were with Kapaun always heard the name pronounced, too.
The story he heard, Ray Kapaun said, is that when they were dedicating the high school bearing his uncle’s name, a cardinal “ended up saying ‘CAPE-un’ ” during the ceremony.
“Who’s going to push against a cardinal?” Kapaun said. “It stuck.”
At the White House ceremony where he presented the Medal of Honor to Kapaun’s descendants, President Obama pronounced the chaplain’s name as “Ka-PAWN.” At the Hall of Heroes ceremony in the Pentagon, every speaker pronounced it “Ka-PAWN.”
In each case, staff members researched the proper pronunciation of Kapaun’s name prior to the ceremonies.
The Rev. John Hotze, the Catholic priest who for nearly 15 years has led the Vatican’s investigation of Kapaun’s candidacy for sainthood, said there hasn’t been any discussion yet among diocesan officials about formally changing the way the school bearing the chaplain’s name is pronounced.
“To me, it’s a non-issue,” Hotze said.
With the Kapaun family’s blessing, he said, church officials have placed their priority on gathering information requested by the Vatican related to the cause for Kapaun’s canonization. If the Catholic Church one day beatifies Kapaun, Hotze said, the diocese figures to make the proper pronunciation of Kapaun’s name more of a priority.
Vatican officials are currently studying a number of purported miracles attributed to Kapaun, and if one of them is judged to be authentic, it would elevate the chaplain to one step short of sainthood.
And that’s why it means so much to the men who lived and suffered with Kapaun in the POW camp that people pronounce his name correctly.
“If the Church makes him a saint, they ought to have the original pronunciation ... the way his mother and father give it to him,” Herb Miller said.
Kapaun saved him from execution by a Chinese soldier during the battle of Unsan and then helped Miller survive the long march to the POW camp. The moment is immortalized in a statue that stands outside the priest’s native St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen.
To knowingly mispronounce someone’s name is an insult, Miller and fellow POW Bob McGreevey said.
“It’s a big deal to all us guys that knew him,” McGreevey said. “He’s probably turning over in his grave.
“I can’t believe they call him CAPE-un.”
That’s how Ray Kapaun pronounced his name growing up, though he remembers monthly visits to his grandparents’ house in Pilsen. Bessie Kapaun would always ask why they pronounced the name of the school the way they did. They named a school after her son, she said, but were mispronouncing his name.
“I don’t think it hurt her,” Ray Kapaun said. “She just didn’t understand why it was called that.”
Ray Kapaun has changed how he pronounces his name in the past few months to match the way his father, grandparents and Uncle Emil said it. It’s a way to honor them, he said.
He has become the family spokesman when media do pieces on Emil Kapaun, and he will be in Pilsen on Sunday to present the Medal of Honor to his uncle’s home parish.
He said he realized it was important to pronounce his name the same way his uncle did.
“I wouldn’t be walking my walk if I didn’t,” he said.
Yet he still finds himself slipping and pronouncing his name the old way now and then.
“You’re so used to it, it’s almost habit,” he said. “It’s just human nature.”
Hotze said he is struggling with it, too.
“I’m trying to pronounce his name right,” he said, “but I only do it about 10 percent of the time.”
Ray Kapaun said he doesn’t get upset when he hears people say his uncle’s name the way folks around Wichita have for decades now.
“As long as the kids who go there (to Kapaun Mount Carmel High School) know who he is and what he stands for … that’s the important thing,” he said.