It’s a small thing, really. But when winter passes, and the world begins to warm up, life just seems a little better, a little more hopeful.
That’s the kind of feeling that Bill Wassmuth used to have on people. The subject of Andrea Vogt’s nonfiction book “Common Courage: Bill Wassmuth, Human Rights and Small-Town Activism,” Wassmuth was the kind of man who, as a priest and a person, could get the best out of others.
“He had this ability to draw people out,” Lidwina Dirne, one of Wassmuth’s former parishioners at Coeur d’Alene’s St. Pius X Church, told the Seattle Times. “One of the earliest times we saw him was when we had that outing at a camp, and there he was, on skis, in his swimming trunks. And we said, ‘Oh. Here comes our pastor.’ ”
The spirit that Wassmuth exuded will become clear to those who choose to read Vogt’s book, which is the March read of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
Wassmuth, who died in 2002, was the perfect subject for a profile. A native of small-town (Greencreek) Idaho , Wassmuth was raised in a strong Catholic community. But like many of us, he struggled with his faith.
He decided to become a priest. Then he undecided. Then he changed his mind again.
Wassmuth entered seminary in eighth grade yet eventually would leave the priesthood and marry. But before he took off his collar, he had served in several parishes, given emotional support to many and fought for every social issue you can name.
And as Vogt wrote, the one thing that Wassmuth never quibbled about was social justice.
“Somehow, even with death in close pursuit, Bill Wassmuth not only laughed, but made others laugh, too,” Vogt wrote. “He also found the strength to pass on what he learned during a lifetime of fighting for human rights in rural America.”
Wassmuth put his own time on the front lines. He founded the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which later merged with the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity (a six-state group that ceased operations last year). His impetus to form the group came in 1986 after members of the Aryan Nations placed a bomb in his Coeur d’Alene home.
At the time, Wassmuth was serving as pastor of St. Pius X Catholic Church. He’d arrived at the church in 1979 and shortly after arriving had begun working against the Aryan Nations’ racist presence.
“To ignore hate groups, even though they usually include relatively small numbers of people, is to miscalculate the impact they can have on a community, and to miss an opportunity to bring a community together to take another step toward justice for all,” he wrote in his 1999 book “Hate Is My Neighbor.”
His efforts paid off in September 2000 when a $6 million judgment against the Aryan Nations bankrupted the group and its leader, Richard Butler, forcing Butler to leave his Hayden Lake compound.
In 2000, Wassmuth was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Two years later he was dead.
It was shortly after Wassmuth was diagnosed with the illness that would kill him that Vogt began working on her book. She’d been told by editors at the University of Idaho Press that Wassmuth would be a good subject. But when she approached him, Wassmuth was adamant: He wanted the book to be more than simply a biography.
“He wanted something bigger than a biography, something that expands the discussion on human rights,” Vogt told Spokesman-Review staff writer Cynthia Taggart.
At the time a Spokesman-Review staff writer herself, Vogt worked on the book in her spare time for over two years.
Critics were impressed with the result.
“Andrea Vogt's moving account of the life and brave death of Bill Wassmuth combines an investigative reporter's thoroughness with a poet's grasp of the spiritual side of his crusade against hate,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist James Coates, who added that the book is “a disturbing and insightful account of a Catholic priest's soulful journey through the turbulence of the late 20th century.”
But Wassmuth likely would have been more impressed with the reactions of those who knew him best.
“It’s just excellent,” North Idaho College professor Tony Stewart told Taggart. “I’m so grateful that she captured his thoughts in writing so that future generations can read about his philosophy on human rights and social justice.’’