We lost a giant last week. A giant of faith, of joy, of life.
The Rev. William Dawson, a man who taught thousands of students at St. Ambrose University, who preached innumerable sermons and celebrated innumerable sacraments, who cared deeply about peace, justice and people, who inspired generations, died Tuesday.
He was the priest who married me and my husband 26 years ago and baptized our two children a few years later. He refused payment for those milestone ceremonies because that was his nature. Always giving.
When I heard he had died, I thought of those earlier times in my life. I also thought of a time in the early 1980s when he celebrated a Mass next to the Fort Armstrong blockhouse on Arsenal Island, part of a Hiroshima Day peace observance/protest. I was standing nearby, so he asked me to hold the Mass book.
He was among the last of the "activist" priests who lit fires in young souls, who showed that the Gospels should make a difference in how you live your life.
And I thought of Sharron Solis of Davenport, who once sent me a piece she had written about Father Dawson when he baptized her first grandson about 10 years ago.
Read it and you'll know Father Dawson:
"It was Sunday morning and our first grandson Bobby was to be baptized after Mass," Sharron wrote. "The whole family was there, and Bobby's 4-year-old sister, Bella, sat in between her mother and me, at the end of the pew.
"I'm thinking Bella must have noticed how people around her, including family, smiled a lot during his sermon. Father Dawson has a way about making people smile. Another thing I'll mention about Father Dawson ... he always seemed to wear a surplice (a wide-sleeved vestment) that was a little too long in the arms so that he always cuffs the sleeves back ... you'd see him do it. It seemed to me ... very similar to how Jesus is pictured wearing His robes.
"Well, soon came the Sign of Peace ... and we were all smiling, hugging and kissing each other. Father Dawson never misses the opportunity to circulate, moving up and down the aisles, shaking hands and waving to those he can't reach.
"He eventually came to our side section, calling to my husband by his first name while greeting and touching others in our family. Bella was shy and watched quietly, standing as tall as she could on the kneeler. I don't think she had ever seen a priest at Mass so interactive with the congregation. Father had looked right into her eyes.
"The church was packed that Sunday and once Father Dawson made his way past us, most of us were still turned around watching him. Father reached the last pew and there, standing beyond was a family with their elderly mother, thin and frail, in a wheelchair.
"She and her family were well-known to him and he was happy to see them all. Father Dawson went directly up to her, touching her face, saying in his happy voice, that we could all hear, "THERE you are, where have you been? I've been looking all over for you."
"Now, we all knew his comments meant that he had not seen her for a while; however, at least to me, I heard it as a line right out of Scripture.
"After a few words and more greetings, Father resumed his pilgrimage back to the altar, passing us again, still smiling his happy smile.
"Bella tugged on my sleeve, ‘Gramma, ... is that God?' I smiled down at her and, in doing so, noticed the face of a lady sitting right behind us, and she was smiling, too. "Pretty close," I thought. "Pretty close."