Seattle Post, Aug. 29, 2002
By Florangela Davila
Bill Wassmuth, the former Roman Catholic priest who became one of the Northwest’s most visible leaders against hate, died Tuesday (Aug. 27) at his home in Ellensburg. He was 61.
For more than a year, Mr. Wassmuth battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a chronic and disabling disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
But Mr. Wassmuth was always a warrior. As pastor of St. Pius X Church in Coeur d’Alene, he took on white supremacist Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations. In his second career, as executive director of the six-state Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, he became the nemesis of those who preached hate.
“He really made the Northwest a different place,” said Eric Ward, of the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity.
“Now, when you talk about Coeur d’Alene, people say it’s so beautiful there. You just don’t hear, ‘Oh, you’re from the spot with the Aryan Nations,’ because that’s just history,” said Capt. Ben Wolfinger of Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.
In the late 1980s, as groups espousing racial bigotry took root throughout the Northwest, Mr. Wassmuth was a force for social activism, tirelessly campaigning and proving that one person can make a difference.
“To ignore hate groups, even though they usually include relatively small numbers of people, is to miscalculate the impact that they can have on a community,” Mr. Wassmuth wrote in his 1999 book, Hate is My Neighbor, “and to miss an opportunity to bring a community together to take another step toward justice for all.”
Born in tiny Greencreek, Idaho, Mr. Wassmuth was one of nine children raised by a full-time mom and a dad who farmed. Even as a youngster he contemplated becoming a priest. He entered the seminary in the eighth grade.
After serving in other parishes, Mr. Wassmuth arrived at St. Pius in 1979, a white man who wore his hair in an Afro. Parishioners affectionately called him the “hippie priest.” He was charismatic and witty.
In his jeans and leather jacket, he was the antithesis of square and stuffy.
Initially, Mr. Wassmuth was unaware of just how influential he could be.
In the mid-1980s, Butler, a Californian, had moved to Hayden Lake, Idaho, and began inviting white supremacists to join him on a 20-acre homestead. The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations fought back. Eventually, the task force sensed if they recruited Mr. Wassmuth as its leader, it could be even more powerful.
“When we first approached him, he said, ‘Why me?’ ” said Tony Stewart, a task-force member at the time. “I think sometimes he was unaware of his power. Everyone saw his leadership, his passion and commitment.”
As task-force leader, Mr. Wassmuth mobilized a community rally the same week Butler was scheduled to hold his Aryan Nations’ annual World Congress. The rally outdrew the supremacists 20-to-1, forever including Mr. Wassmuth as one of the state’s heroes.
But it also made him a target.
On Sept. 15, 1986, as Mr. Wassmuth was in his living room, a pipe bomb shredded the back of his house. Three other bombs were later detonated throughout Coeur d’Alene, injuring no one. Authorities eventually convicted Aryan Nations members of the bombings.
The attack prompted Mr. Wassmuth to leave the priesthood, move to Seattle and create the coalition.
“He really refused to let the haters have the floor,” said Bethine Church, wife of former U.S. Sen. Frank Church of Idaho.
“I can just picture him. That soft grin, that light beard, confident that what he was doing was right,” said Wolfinger, the sheriff’s captain. “These people, the Aryans, try as they would, they weren’t going to defeat him.”
Mr. Wassmuth lived to see the demise of Butler’s group, which lost control of its 20-acre compound in 2000. The land was then purchased by a human-rights organization.
Even after he left the priesthood, having grown frustrated with its mandates, including the issue of celibacy, Mr. Wassmuth continued his quest for social justice. He chaired a state advisory committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He sat on the board of a newly created Institute for Action Against Hate at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
Mr. Wassmuth said he always had to remind himself that he could learn and try to understand what it was like to suffer injustices.
“It’s the folks that don’t realize what white privilege is who can have friends of other races but still make comments about ‘knowing your proper place.’ That tears our society,” he said in an interview in April.
Mr. Wassmuth also helped found the Hospice of North Idaho as well as Idaho’s first Cult Awareness Center.
But there were also private moments of helping others, friends recall. The one-on-one counseling, for example, the hugs and hand squeezes that he continued to bestow from his wheelchair as his disease gradually worsened. “Even in his final months, he was very attentive to the needs of people around him,” said Rev. John Boonstra, executive minister of the Washington Association of Churches, who was with him when he died.
Mr. Wassmuth lived with his artist wife Mary Frances Dondelinger of 13 years in Ellensburg, in a sunny house with each room painted a different color. He was a huge baseball fan. He attended his first and only Seattle Mariner game in April. On Tuesday afternoon, Boonstra said, family and friends made sure the Mariners game was turned on.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Andrews Church, 401 South Willow St. in Ellensburg, WA. Contributions in Mr. Wassmuth’s name can be sent to: Institute for Action against Hate, Gonzaga University, MSC 2466, Spokane, WA 99258; Gallery One, 408-1/2 North Pearl, Ellensburg, WA 98926; or local human-rights organization.