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Eagle-eyed readers of the RoundTable may have noticed that a significant byline has been missing from the paper since July: Charles Wilkinson’s. Charlie has been a regular columnist since the RoundTable first started publishing in 1998. Family concerns have forced him to the sidelines for the first time in 22 years.
I met Charlie when I started working at the paper some 15 years ago. For a number of years we shared a desk in the newsroom of the RoundTable’s office at 1124 Florence Ave. Charlie and I were there to work on our columns and do some copy editing. As such we’d trade tidbits and tips about the craft of journalism. There was a mutual regard for each other’s writing as well as mutual admiration for Mary and Larry Gavin, the paper’s founders and guiding lights. We’d also commiserate about the Cubs’ failures and celebrate their successes.
With so much in common, we decided to start meeting for coffee at Leonidas on Central Street every second or third Saturday morning over a succession of months back in 2016. It was there I learned about Charlie’s amazing life as a priest, teacher, counselor, husband, father and writer.
He was born in Baltimore in 1935, the next-to-last of five children. The last was his identical twin, Noel, a surprise, who was born a few minutes later. His mother later joked, “Darling, when they began to double up, it was time to quit!”
Having an identical twin was a treasure, “the very best way to grow up,” Charlie said. The two were very close. “You always had a playmate,” he recalled. They liked fooling people as to who was who.
Their parents were immigrants: William Jack Wilkinson was English, from near Liverpool; Margaret (Peggy) was from County Mayo, Ireland.
His dad worked for the Jesuits, then managed apartment buildings in Baltimore and Annapolis and owned two dry cleaners.
Charlie (known then as Chuck) and his twin Noel were altar boys and great favorites at weddings and funerals. “People asked for us. I should have started a business,” Charlie joked.
But there was a dark family problem: alcohol. Both parents were afflicted. They fought a great deal. “It was a holy war,” Charlie said, “the Irish vs. the English.”
Later he realized it was one reason he wanted to be a priest, so he could leave his troubled household. At age 13 he entered a minor seminary at St. Mary’s in North East, Pennsylvania, a prep school of the Redemptorist Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. The Redemptorists were a strict order. Newspapers and secular magazines were forbidden, movies were carefully selected and edited and TV was confined to sports. Even personal mail was censored. The order was known for “hell fire and damnation preaching,” Charlie said. “They were serious about the Big Four: death, judgment, heaven and hell. There was a lot of self-mortification and self-effacing of the ego, very shaming of the self, almost medieval in approach.”
Despite the strict regimen St. Mary’s provided a wonderful education, Charlie said, which aside from the usual liberal arts courses included Greek, Latin, religion, philosophy, theater, singing and sports. He edited the poetry magazine.
At the age of 19 he entered the novitiate in Ilchester, Md., and a year later the major seminary at Mount St. Alphonsus in Esopus, N.Y., both major steps on the journey to priesthood. Finally he was ordained at the age of 27 in 1962. After his final year at Mount St. Alphonsus he was assigned to teach communications at St. Alphonsus College in Suffield, Conn., and after a year of teaching, sent to Northwestern University for further studies.
That was where he began his acquaintance with the wider world, as he put it, “where I started to meet my mind.” He asked one NU professor what he wanted for a given assignment. The professor responded, “‘Don’t give me what I want or already have. Give me something of yourself. Give me your mind.’ I took that to heart,” he said, and wrote his paper on the Mass as Dance. The professor loved it.
Northwestern was also, significantly, where he met his future wife, Kathleen Galvin.
In June 1965 he received a master’s degree in Public Address and Group Communication and for the next six years taught communication courses at St. Alphonsus. He loved his work there and was encouraged to pursue a doctorate. So in 1970 he returned to Evanston, where, he said, “I bumped into all those earlier feelings” about freedom to pursue a wider life, even beyond the priesthood. He also reconnected with Kathy, who was then an Assistant Professor in Speech Education. (She retired just over a year ago after teaching there for 51 years.)
A year back at St. Alphonsus didn’t allay those feelings. He was refused permission to stage “The Trial of the Catonsville 9,” a play by Father Daniel Berrigan about Catholics protesting the Vietnam War. The refusal was another push toward making a big life change.
“It felt like arrested development. I needed to grow up, but I felt that I couldn’t do it there,” he said. After much soul-searching, he decided to leave the priesthood in the fall of 1971. It took six months. Kathy helped him get a part-time teaching job at Chicago State University, and he also taught at Loyola, Northeastern, Harper and Triton colleges. On some evenings he led a workshop in weight loss.
Charlie was an idealist – he met Daniel Berrigan when he came to Chicago – but also practical. He worked as former Illinois State Senator Russell Arrington’s chauffeur, and even got to drive the Senator’s chiffon yellow Cadillac convertible with Illinois license plate 1 on his honeymoon with Kathy in June of 1973. They stopped at a McDonald’s drive-in on the way to Mackinac Island.
He finished his dissertation in 1975 and worked as an assistant dean in continuing education at Northwestern. He called the job “administrivia,” handling curriculum development and hiring teachers. “The paperwork withered my psyche and drove me crazy,” he said. “I needed people work.”
He decided to combine his priestly and academic skills and pursue counseling in marriage and family communications, so he could “help healthy people in hurting places.” He took courses at the Family Institute in Chicago for two years and then hung out his shingle, first as a solo practitioner, then as a member of a North Shore counseling group. He has consulted and coached widely, even appearing on local TV and radio programs.
Meanwhile he and Kathy had a son, Matthew, born in 1975, and a daughter, Katie, in 1977. They adopted a Korean baby girl, Kara, in 1979.
There was one ongoing problem: He was reluctant to admit he was developing into an alcoholic. As a priest he drank to be sociable, then started giving in to family and career pressures and drinking more frequently. Eventually, with Kathy’s persistent urging, he checked himself into a 30-day rehab program in Oak Park. He stayed nine months, he said, and with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, “I finally woke up. After a while, AA isn’t about drinking, it’s about living. When it works, you confront yourself with the truth you need to hear.”
That was also when he began to write more seriously. He has authored two children’s books, published poems in Spirit Magazine and won an award for an article “Loneliness Is” in U.S. Catholic Magazine. His latest booklet is about dying vs. death, titled “Going Home.”
There are also his RoundTable columns of more than two decades. As a neighbor and good friend of the Gavins, he was aware of their plans to start up the newspaper in 1998 and asked if he could contribute a column. He wrote about everything under the sun – from godliness to humanness and, of course, his beloved Cubbies.
“What interests and motivates me is the use of language to create something meaningful.” He said as a priest he would write out and memorize his sermons. “My initial focus was: what do they need to hear? Eventually it became, ‘What do I need to say?’ That’s how I write my column.”
Listening to Charlie’s stories and reading his columns over the years, I’ve learned a great deal: about the importance of honesty, the values of decency and friendship, and striving to fulfill one’s full talents for the benefit of others.
“We’re all unique,” he told me. “Every person has the power to say to God, ‘I love you’ in a way God has never heard before. I’m incomplete and the world is incomplete and we’re working to get to wholeness.”
Thank you, Charlie, for that honesty and those lessons.