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Jack Willke: Answering the Call

by | Feb 27, 2015

By Dave Andrusko

Jack and Barbara Willke

Jack and Barbara Willke

I strongly suspect you have to be married a long, long time to begin to grasp how much Jack Willke missed Barbara, his wife of almost 65 years. Barbara, the mother of six, the grandmother of 22, and great-grandmother of three, died in 2013. Jack passed last Friday, peacefully in his own home, and now is reunited with the woman whom no doubt was still educating while she waited for Jack.

Jack, the president of National Right to Life for a decade, and more recently leader of the Life Issues Institute, was a physician. As such he did not lack for confidence.

Yet to those who knew Jack and Barbara, we knew that he knew he was only half of what could rightly be called the First Couple of the Pro-Life Movement. You simply could not think of one without thinking of the other. They were inseparable.

If you were lucky enough to attend one of their NRLC workshops, you remember they divided up the material, each speaking separately. Yet, while it is a cliché, it is also absolutely true. So thoroughly were their thoughts intertwined, they could finish each other’s sentences.

I first met Jack at a NRLC convention in Nebraska in the summer of 1981. Two leaders of NRLC’s Minnesota affiliate were kind enough to recommend me to fill the position of editor of National Right to Life News. (Those two, David N. O’Steen, Ph.D., and Darla St. Martin, would later come to assume the positions of Executive Director and Co-Executive Director of NRLC, respectively.)

We had a second interview later in Washington, DC, and my wife and I came to work for NRLC in September 1981. We’ve been here ever since.

No one could expect younger pro-lifers to appreciate the enormous impact Jack had on our Movement. They’ve grown up in the age of the Internet and social media where materials can fly across the world with a click of a mouse. You don’t need a sympathetic mass media to get your point of view out.

But back in those early days, it was a lot, lot more difficult and infinitely slower. In those early years it was slides and mimeographed materials with a few audio-visual aids all sent by the U.S. mail.

And a handful of books.

No book was more influential in drawing pro-lifers into the Movement than “Handbook on Abortion.” I literally can remember afternoons on my front porch reading entire sections of the book at one sitting (something I never did before or since).

And it is impossible to convey to newcomers or young people the impact of the “Willke slides.” To this day I can remember the sharp intake of breath—and gasps–as people would see what an aborted baby looked like for the first time.

Not then or now is everyone comfortable with such graphic materials, but in the 1960s and 70s, there is no telling how many pro-lifers first experienced their “aha” movement as they watched the Willke slides. It was hard to come away from them and act as if nothing had happened.

You had seen something you would never, ever forget.

Elsewhere today, NRLC President Carol Tobias writes about attending Jack’s funeral, as did Dr. O’Steen. Carol tells us that one of the songs sung was “Here I am, Lord,” which, of course, is built on the prophet Samuel’s calling as a young boy.

The lyrics are, I believe, the right way to end this tribute to Jack. It is also a reminder that all of us have been called to fight this injustice but it is only pro-lifers who have responded to the Call:

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry.
All who dwell in darkness now
My hand will save.
I who make the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord.
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, where you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
I, the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people’s pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn a-way.
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak my words to them.
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord.
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, where you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them.
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide,
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them.
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. It is I Lord.
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, where you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Categories: Pro-Lifers