"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the 
least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me' " (Matthew 25:40)

April 9, 2008

St Francis Nat'l Park Foundation
The Mission
Ripon Mission
Christian Medical Missions

"Father Wally: 'I have to give back'

This is the fourth and final in a series of stories highlighting Ripon’s sister city — Wacuco, Panama — and the work being done there by Ripon native Father Wally Kasuboski. This week’s article is about Father Wally and his future in Panama.

by Ian Stepleton

A sly grin creeps across the unshaven face, stopped only by the cigarette drooping out one corner off his mouth. “I’m going to die with my boots on,” Father Wally Kasuboski says with a twinkle in his eye that belies his 62 years. “I’m like an old soldier.”

And, watching him, everyone in his presence knows he means it.

A man who’s done everything from practice as an attorney in Washington, D.C. to work as an activist, Father Wally is a Ripon native today only in name.

After 20 years living in remote Wacuco, Panama, one of his parishioners said it best. “He is no longer an American,” the older man said. “He’s a Wacuco-an.”

Take two minutes to talk with “Padre Pablo,” as he is known there, and it’s not hard to see the parishioner is right.
Padre Pablo thinks in Spanish, and more often searches for his English vocabulary than fights for those in espańol. “It’s easier for me, Spanish than English,” he said.

Ask him about retirement, and he laughs. He’ll sooner talk about building an old folks home for the existing residents, than talk of retiring himself. In fact, he has plans for one in Torti, five miles east of Wacuco.

But Father Wally already has done more in his two decades in the Wacuco area than anyone has ever done for those people. And they love him for it. Talk to the residents of the area, and one hears the same comment over and over again.
“He hasn’t abandoned us.”

For someone so passionate about east-central Panama, it’s ironic he never wanted to come in the first place. “My superior called me and said, ‘You’re going to Panama,’” Father Wally said. “I said, ‘What?’ “But my order had been sent down.” His concern wasn’t that he shouldn’t help these people. It was that he wasn’t certain a full mission in the area could be maintained.

“I didn’t think we could sustain the numbers required by the contract,” he said. Plus, he knew the region would not be easy in which to work. “You have to be tough to be here,” he admits, describing the area as the “Wild West” when he arrived.

Roads were pitiful, rut-filled dirt trails; clean water was unheard of. Bottom line: the area was almost devoid of decent infrastructure.

“His family was very worried,” said Bernadette Krentz, one of Father Wally’s cousins. They weren’t surprised by his adventures, though.

“He was in Nicaragua for a few years, then in D.C. and working for the [public-interest law firm] Christic Institute,” said Father Wally’s brother, Peter. “He was in Saudi Arabia with the oil companies as a school teacher [too]. “We all just thought, whatever he wants to do ...” And, while Peter said his family thought of Father Wally as “kind of a radical. He’s got his own opinions about things, that’s for sure,” his devotion to the church wasn’t a surprise.

“He was the only one who served at mass,” Peter said of he and his many brothers and sisters. “He was the only one that was an alter boy.” Their parents must have recognized it, too, because they agreed to send him to seminary. “It was a surprise to the rest of us,” Peter said, laughing that even Father Wally “was no angel, like all kids. He liked to ride motorbikes as fast as the rest of us.”

Maybe it was that strength of spirit that enabled Father Wally to survive in the wilds of Panama. It wasn’t easy in the early days. Father Wally jokes of how he’d periodically come back to America to get “de-wormed” after drinking the fetid water available.

What he did next, though, is local legend.

He built roads. Schools and churches were constructed. And, in what he would become best known for, he created a modern water system that piped safe, clean water down from the mountains. Yes, this meant no more need to be de-wormed. But never was this work done for himself; it always was done to help the people in and around Wacuco.

When he came, most men in the area “only knew how to use a machete — that’s it. And they would come to me for a job. I would give them a bicycle. If they could take care of the bicycle ... if they did a good job with that, I would give them a motorcycle.” And so forth, until they became Father Wally’s men, capable of doing anything from welding steel girders to wiring a home.

For as much as Father Wally can appear the gruff foreman while on the work site, his giving nature continually betrays him. Consider, for instance, the story of Francisco, or “Patcho” as he prefers to be called. “He was a Colombian that worked for the logging company for 40, 50 years,” Father Wally said. “A chain-saw guy. And he drank up all his money, and he was always broke. But finally, he got really old, and couldn’t take care of himself.”

Elderly, crabby and broke, Patcho didn’t have a single friend or family in the Wacuco area to care for him. But Father Wally didn’t give up on this otherwise forgotten old man. He set Patcho up in an old-folks home down the road. Patcho quickly was kicked out. Father Wally kept trying. “I gave him a little room here, and paid a lady $3 a day to cook for him,” Father Wally said. “She did it for a year and a half, and she left.” He then paid another woman for the job, but after a few months she threw her hands up in the air and said she was fed up with Patcho. “I said, ‘Patcho, no one loves you, or you don’t love anyone; I’m not sure which,’” Father Wally said, and offered him a deal.

Patcho took him up on the offer. Today, Patcho continues to live at Father Wally’s compound, and is paid $2 a day to shop and cook for himself, which he does over a small stove Father Wally put in his room. And he can be found, most days, sitting outside his room, listening to his old transistor radio. Simply because Father Wally knew Patcho needed help.

But who will take care of Father Wally one day? It’s a question he refuses to answer, refuses to face, even as he knows — at 62 — he’s not quite the youthful man that started the Wacuco project 20 years ago. “As life goes on, you feel the energy level drop and your body wears out,” he said.

He’ll joke of living in a bunker up in the jungle when he “retires,” but dances around the subject of a real retirement. He’d rather talk of his reward after this life, than of how he’ll finish his years on Earth. “I want to go to heaven, but I know I can’t leave these people alone because they need [help],” Father Wally said.

Challenges lay ahead for the people of Wacuco. New temptations are arriving daily, it seems, as technology slowly trickles into the eastern end of the Panama isthmus. Cell phones are becoming common. So is the anachronistic sight of TV antennas sticking out of grass huts. And with excess comes another worldwide vice: alcoholism. “I’ve brought in AA experts, and the church was full [for the first meeting],” he said. “By the third [meeting] there was five.”

Other challenges abound in this barely-settled corner of Panama, such as the land struggle between the indigenous Indian tribe, the Kuna, and local ranchers. “The Kunas are ready to go to war,” Father Wally said. He might also be the only reason they haven’t thus far. He’s stood up for the Kuna’s land rights against the invading ranchers, telling them to stay off the Kuna land.

It hasn’t earned him many friends among those ranchers — even leading to letters written to newspapers complaining about him — but Father Wally knows it’s the right thing to do. “He is a stabilizing force and a dividing force,” said his brother, Peter. “A little of each. Of course you are going to divide people when people want to be greedy.

“But he’s the common force that keeps people together. He’s not just giving lip service, and people respect that, most people. No, I [don’t worry] about him. I am very proud of him.” Father Wally knows groups such as the ranchers are not among his friends.

But, strengthened by a desire to help the people of east-central Panama, he can’t stop himself. “What keeps me here?” he asks. “People’s capacity to learn ... [and their desire] to better their lives, and my small part to help do it.”
His impact isn’t lost on those who know him, either.

“Much has improved in the community since Padre came here,” said Wilamena, one of his parishioners. “We are very grateful,” ansaid other parishioner, Elvis.

“How perfect a man could he be?” Bernadette asks of her cousin. “He is a saint, as far as I can see. Saint Wally ...
“I don’t think he is really aware of what he does for everyone.”

“People around here don’t have the opportunity to learn,” Father Wally said, adding he believes, “‘He who is given a lot has much to return.’ So I feel I have to give back to society what I’ve learned. If I don’t, I don’t feel I can sleep.”
And he doesn’t plan to sleep any time soon.

“I feel like a trooper,” he said. “I’m going to die with my boots on.”

Last modified: June 18, 2013