Wednesday, May 23, 2018
News Roundup

Former priest persevered through communism, taught counseling at USF

TAMPA — In his 20s, Victor Drapela was a priest in Czechoslovakia at the start of the communist era, watching his native country endure another wave of repression after the German occupation.

He spent his 30s on the plains of North Dakota, a priest with a Ph.D and a thirst for the great questions, starting with who are we and why are we here?

By his late 40s, Dr. Drapela had left the priesthood and was teaching psychology at the University of South Florida. He would visit his homeland before and after it became the Czech Republic, the democracy under which he had grown up restored.

Along the way he would undergo forced labor, escape Czechoslovakia before the police could capture him, and try to reconcile the mission to which he had been appointed with the one he was choosing.

Dr. Drapela, a sober adventurer who taught counseling psychology for 24 years at USF, including 10 as department chair; died Nov. 10 at home of a heart-related illness. He was 91.

Students knew him as charming but formal, a man who preferred to be addressed as "Doctor" in university settings or outside of them. He wrote textbooks, including one on theories of personality, and sometimes sprinkled conversations with fragments of his story.

"It was a very interesting life," Dr. Drapela told the Times two years ago, "but I wouldn't want to live it again."

Victor J. Drapela was born in Prague in 1922, four years into the first democracy in Czechoslovakia's thousand-year history. A maid cooked for him; a chauffeur drove. He celebrated "Mass" with a chalice in his bedroom, wearing pint-sized vestments from his mother, who wanted him to become a priest.

After the death of his father, a high-ranking diplomat, he learned the rudiments of theology in a Jesuit boarding school. He added philosophy in a piecemeal college education, broken up by Hitler's 1939 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

He was corralled into a labor camp in Suhl, Germany, where his fluency in German got him an office job. He was transferred to a company in Prague that made German submarine parts.

He left after 16 months when the war ended, but freedom didn't last long. The Communist Party seized power in 1948. By then Dr. Drapela was a priest working for the bishop in Prague and handing out anticommunist literature. He later learned his activism had landed him on the radar of the Soviet-backed secret police, who had put out an all-points bulletin.

He escaped in 1949 and made his way to Rome, then the United Sates. He earned a doctorate at the University of North Dakota and was put in charge of a series of parishes, building one church.

Dr. Drapela was now far from danger. A little too far.

"He came from culture — classical art, classical literature and classical music," said Gwen Drapela, Dr. Drapela's wife. "And he was working with farmers, and all they wanted to talk about is how many gallons of milk their cows gave and how many bushels of wheat."

He told the bishop he would like to teach theology. "The bishop said, 'We don't need people to teach, we just need country pastors,'" said Gwen Drapela, 74.

They met in 1969, when her name was Gwen Blavat and she was an elementary school counselor taking a guidance class.

She was also a nun. Dr. Drapela, her professor, had joined the faculty a year earlier.

Eventually, he asked her to have coffee with him. Dr. Drapela subsequently wrote to Pope Paul VI asking to be released from the priesthood. In 1972 he married Gwen, who by then had also been released from being a nun.

Before he retired from USF in 1992, Dr. Drapela had trained so many future counselors "it just blows the mind," said Jim Barnard, 81, an emeritus psychology professor at USF.

As his health faded due to a heart condition, Gwen Drapela would sing to him: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.

"The last time I sang it to him he said, 'I am at peace,'" his wife said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected].

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