Helen Kapaun, the last member of her family to have known and loved Medal of Honor winner Emil Kapaun, died Wednesday at the Catholic Care Center in Bel Aire, friends said Thursday. She was 86.
She was a shy girl when she married a farm kid from Pilsen, Eugene Kapaun. Like everyone around Pilsen she got to know his nice-guy brother Emil, the earnest Catholic priest with the quiet demeanor who would end up in the history books.
No one back in the 1940s could know then that in December 2012 her apartment phone at the Catholic Care Center would ring. She was hanging Christmas decorations.
“Mrs. Kapaun?” the caller said. “This is the president, Barack Obama.” He asked her to come to the White House for the medal ceremony. She almost hung up on him; she thought it might be a prank call.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
Four months later, she broke her promise to Obama that she would come to the White House and accept Emil Kapaun’s Medal of Honor from the president’s hands. She sent her children instead, led by her son, Ray.
She felt bad about letting Obama down, even though he is, as she said, “a liberal.”
Emil Kapaun was a Korean war hero. An Army chaplain, his buddies say he saved hundreds of lives, first by dragging wounded soldiers to safety while under fire on battlefields and then in a North Korean prison camp where he tended the sick, stole food from camp guards and rallied prisoners to resist Chinese Army attempts to brainwash them. He died of starvation and illness in the prison camp in May 1951.
Mrs. Kapaun said she appreciated how Emil Kapaun’s POW friends worked for 60 years to persuade the Army to award him the Medal of Honor and to persuade the Catholic Church to declare Emil Kapaun a saint. The Vatican is considering his sainthood.
But she and her family helped only quietly and behind the scenes. She said she would have been mortified had anyone thought that she and her family were trying to capitalize on Father Kapaun’s reckless bravery to gain something for themselves or to seem boastful about a family member.
But for those 60 years, she preserved Emil Kapaun’s letters, documents and some of his belongings, and she shared all that – and her own stories about him – with anyone who asked. If he does attain sainthood someday, those belongings and letters will be treated as sacred objects by the church.
“I would just like everyone to remember her for what a dedicated mother she was,” her son, Ray Kapaun, said Thursday. “And how strong she was, in spite of all the suffering she endured.”
Her husband died in 2010 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Her daughter, Rosanne Kapaun, was murdered in 2007 in west Wichita.
“Mom never judged anybody about that,” Ray Kapaun said. “She never blamed the people who killed Rosanne.”
She was born in Wichita in 1929, Ray Kapaun said. She married Eugene Kapaun in 1948, with her brother-in-law Emil officiating. She has six surviving children. Funeral services are pending.
Mrs. Kapaun was 83 and living as a widow at the Catholic Care Center when Obama called in 2012 to invite her to the White House. It took Obama a few minutes and many kind words to persuade her he was not a prank caller.
“I hope you will come,” she recalled the president saying.
That stopped her again.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, no.’
“I told him I didn’t know about getting around in the White House,” she said. “I told him I have to use a walker.
“You can bring your walker,” she said the president replied. “And we have wheelchairs here – all the wheelchairs anyone might need. I hope you can come.”
And so she said yes, but changed her mind shortly after they said goodbye to each other. She worried that the trip and excitement would tire her and compromise her health.
“It’s really hard to say no to the president,” she said later.
When her children finally found out, weeks later, that the president had called her, the realization that their politically conservative mother had talked with Obama prompted her children and friends to tease her endlessly.
When they asked whether she had voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012, her voice rose immediately.
“Are you kidding?” she said. Then she laughed.
“He was really very nice to me.”
But she kept one other promise to Obama, her family said.
Obama, not wanting her bothered by media and wanting time for his staff to get set up for the April 2013 ceremony, asked Mrs. Kapaun not to tell anyone that he had called.
“Please keep this between us,” he said.
“I promised,” she said.
That was in December 2012.
For weeks afterward, Ray Kapaun said, when he and her other children asked whether the president had called, she refused to say a word. She stonewalled her own children, Ray Kapaun said, until news about the medal leaked from unofficial sources in late February 2013.
“The president of the United States asked me not to tell anyone,” she said later.
“So I did not tell anyone.”