His students remember him as a cigar-smoking, airplane-flying, motorcycle-riding Jesuit priest who helped shape them for years to come.
The Rev. Martin Whealen died last week at 87.
Although he was born in St. Louis, the Rev. Whealen had a lasting impact on Wichita through nearly 30 years of teaching at Kapaun High School and the renamed Kapaun Mount Carmel High School.
“He portrayed himself as sort of gruff, tough; that was the image he would initially project, but there were other sides to him, too,” said the Rev. Francis Ryan, director of the Jesuit nursing care center in St. Louis where Whealen lived at the time of his death. “He was a very kind man, he was a very pastoral man.”
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Whealen was the longest-tenured Jesuit priest to teach at Kapaun Mount Carmel, staying on for three years after the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) turned the school over to the Catholic Diocese of Wichita. He taught there until 1989, before teaching and doing pastoral ministry elsewhere. During his time at Kapaun and after, he also served as assistant pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish.
Ryan, also a student of Whealen’s who graduated in 1971, remembered him as a superlative Latin teacher. He also taught religion, coached golf and learned to fly planes through his friends at Beechcraft, Boeing and Cessna.
Several times, he delivered new planes to their purchasers, even flying as far as Europe. Flying was his passion, Ryan said.
As for the motorcycle he rode for several years while teaching, it was the “envy of all the boys in school,” Ryan said.
Rob Knapp, president of Kapaun Mount Carmel Catholic High School, remembers Whealen as someone who taught lessons in a way teenagers could understand.
He still remembers Whealen talking about peer pressure, about people “doing stupid stuff” like vandalism and how they had the ability to stop, even after starting down a bad road.
“He would like to be remembered as one who cared not just for the student but the eternal soul of the student,” Knapp said. “He took a generation and a half of Mount Carmel Crusaders and helped them get to heaven, and there is no better legacy than that.”
The senior religion class that Whealen taught focused on preparation for young adulthood and “real-world Catholicism,” said Knapp, who graduated from the school in 1982.
The curriculum Whealen taught still exists in some form today, he said, with every senior taking a class on Christian vocations.
“One of the great things about Father Whealen was his ability to make you think about what life is really like and about how you can bring your faith and the redemption of Christ into everyday life,” Knapp said.
Not only was Whealen a memorable teacher, he also formed friendships with many of his students’ parents. It wasn’t uncommon to run into him at parties around Wichita. His students also invited him to their graduation celebrations, Knapp said.
Since Whealen’s death, alumni of Kapaun Mount Carmel have shared memories on Facebook about their former teacher.
“He was quite a character,” wrote Eric Klein. “A cigar smoking, motorcycle riding Jesuit. … If success in his calling is measured in the impression he made on young lives, he defined what it means to succeed.”
In his later years, Whealen had dementia, Ryan said. He seemed to enjoy having books read to him in Latin, particularly a translation of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat.”
A Mass remembering Whealen is scheduled Wednesday in St. Louis. He donated his body to the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, so there will be no burial.
A page in a 1975 Kapaun Mount Carmel yearbook includes photos and quotes from the religion teachers. A photo of Whealen is accompanied by these words: “I teach because I know it is the job my God, my Savior, my closest friend Jesus Christ wants me to do. When I give my faith to other people I become richer not poorer. Teaching is the duty that corresponds to the privilege of sharing God’s divine Life.”