SUN CITY CENTER — From childhood, Father William Kearney wanted to be a Catholic priest. He became one at age 59.
He spent many of the intervening years counseling delinquent and disadvantaged children or caring for his elderly parents, priorities too demanding to compromise even for a dream.
Those who knew him say Father Kearney was destined for the priesthood. He was a short, vigorous man who would arm-wrestle his nephews or visit the sick with equal passion, often going from hospital to hospital with no break in between
His family marveled at Father Kearney's long, unblemished letters, written in the King's English with a fountain pen and topped off with perfect likenesses of Bugs Bunny or cartoons of his own design.
In the late 1960s, he directed the regional office of an Ohio group that placed young offenders in 18 counties.
In 1974, New Orleans officials gave him a key to the city for similar efforts there.
All of those accomplishments paled beside his 1983 ordination as a priest in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, an area he adopted to care for his aged parents.
"He finally felt like he had achieved his dream," said nephew Mark Radel. "It was like a glorious day to get started in the work of the Lord."
Father Kearney died Monday, in Evansville, Ind. He was 86.
"He was a good listener and a real, true priest. He had all of the qualities since his youth," said Father Ray Lettre of Spring Hill. "He delayed his vocation to take care of his parents. Once they went home to the Lord, he came to the priesthood."
Father Kearney served at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa, St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Largo, and as an associate pastor (to Lettre) in the Catholic parishes of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Citrus Springs and Prince of Peace in Sun City Center. He also helped develop outreach programs for Catholic Charities.
William Joseph Kearney was born in 1923 in the coal-mining town of Nanticoke, Pa., the grandson of Irish immigrants. World War II interrupted an auspicious start with IBM, where bosses had fast-tracked him to learn architectural engineering.
He served in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps, on a B-24 bomber crew. IBM rehired him on his return but could hardly contain his interests. Between 1942 and 1951, Father Kearney would earn a mechanical engineering certificate at Bucknell University, a business administration degree at Case Western Reserve University and put in a year at its law school.
An Evelyn Woods speed-reading course and boosted his speed from 369 to 4,240 words per minute, his nephew said. He would turn the page, look at it, then look at the next page.
"I thought he was just browsing," said Radel.
He studied philosophy at Notre Dame, got a master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, and a divinity degree from Notre Dame.
A former Golden Gloves lightweight boxing champion, Father Kearney also coached boxing, wrestling and weight lifting as an undergraduate. "In seminary, we used to call him Sluggo," said Lettre, another Notre Dame graduate, "because he used to come over with his arm up, ready to fight you. It was a joyful time. He was a very happy individual."
He used humor to keep children in line, mimicking Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners. "He used to wave his fist at me," Radel said, "and say, 'If you don't behave yourself … Boom — to the moon, Alice!' "
"(Children) really flocked to him," said niece Mary Ann Kearney, 60. "He was a guiding light in their life. He was always the one you could look to for those with no words, who did not have an advocate."
Fate did not grant Father Kearney one final wish: to have Monsignor John Scully preach at his funeral Mass in his hometown of Nanticoke. Scully of Valrico died Oct. 22 while celebrating morning Mass. Instead, Bishop Robert Lynch will do the honors.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.