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Leaving It All On The Field

Leaving It All On The Field

By Justin Seaton '13

I arrived early for my interview in room M107, which is papered with memorabilia from Dick Wehner’s 40 years at SLUH. The room was vacant. A note sat on the podium at the front of the room. “Justin, I stepped away. Back soon.”

Wehner in is natural habitat: Room 107, the "super-maximalist" classroom where has taught Theology to students for decades.

Five minutes later a booming voice filled the freshman hall. While it was distant enough that I couldn’t make out the words, the voice was distinct. It awoke long-dormant memories of morning announcements and pep rallies. Every SLUH student since 1984 would recognize that voice.

At 73 years old, Wehner remains a physical presence. He towered over me and gestured grandly at room M107. “How do you like this, Justin?” He shouted. “This is my baby.”

His design style is super-maximalist. Not an inch of bare wall can be seen. My eyes were first attracted to a royal blue shirt pulled over the back of Wehner’s desk chair, with the initials “CZ” emblazoned inside the Superman pentagon. SLUH STUCO printed that shirt in the fall of 2007 to honor the memory of Chris Zandstra, who died of liver cancer during his sophomore year at SLUH. Wehner has printed Zandstra’s obituary on the back of every syllabus since. He cries when Chris’s name comes up. He cries often these days.

“In my classes, I tell the story of Chris Zandstra. Of Coach Tychonievich. Of Mr. Bantle. All these lives that impacted mine, that informed my faith.” He cried. “I bare my soul to these kids. I share my joys, my fears, the times I’ve flown and the times I’ve crashed; getting cut from teams; not making it into my first choice high school. Part of theology is telling your story — the good, the bad and the ugly.” Students in Wehner’s theology classes become enveloped in his life and memories. He shares personal stories without fear of judgment. His teaching is an emotional effort, and to borrow an idiom from Wehner’s vernacular, he leaves it all on the field every day.

Throughout our conversation, Wehner gestured around the room, giving me leave to scan the museum he had curated. The decor of M107 reflects his many passions.

Images of the Virgin Mary are carefully displayed throughout. A cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis audits every class from the Northwest corner. A dozen Jr. Bills jerseys and spirit t-shirts hang from the joints in the ceiling. Twenty baseball caps are pinned in a column along the side of the smart board, and photos of St. Louis sports legends are interspersed between portraits of Jesuit priests. As in Wehner’s life, in his classroom, faith and athletics intermingle.

Football coaching staff, 1984 (from left): Wehner, Paul Martel (head coach) and Gary Kornfeld.

Though he considers himself a religion teacher first, Wehner is better known as St. Louis U. High’s longest-tenured Athletic Director, a position he held for 30 years.

From 1985-2015, Wehner scheduled nearly 10,000 games and attended more than a third of those. He cared for athletes, coaches, referees, parents and fans as a dedicated servant. He mixed barrels of Gatorade, stocked locker rooms with snacks, and gave hugs as needed. He set clear expectations with every incoming freshman class — at athletic events, Jr. Bills would respect the opposing team and their fans; we would conduct ourselves as men of SLUH.

Some of Wehner’s proudest accomplishments at SLUH are the little things he did as AD. He commissioned “3-point Jesus,” a fiberglass crucifix mounted behind the north basket in the Danis Fieldhouse, “because that’s the basket we shoot at in the second half.” He hung a plaque in the Fr. Hagan Rec Room to commemorate the SLUH alumni who had died in Vietnam. He spotted the phrase “Tradition Never Graduates” in a magazine, adopted it and plastered it everywhere.

He was a highly attentive Athletic Director, but attention costs time — time away from his wife and ten children.

“I was gone a lot,” he admitted. “Back then I was flying solo. I would clean out the coolers after soccer games. I’d be here until one in the morning after football games. I missed a lot with ten kids. My biggest fear was that my kids would say, ‘You know, dad, you were there for all those boys from SLUH, but you weren’t there for us.’”

The Wehner family

I read that quote back to Kevin Wehner, number six of the ten Wehner children, and Dick’s first-born son. Kevin is now a Theology teacher, coach and Assistant Athletic Director at SLUH — a familiar combination. He empathized with his dad.

“The amount of time dad spent at SLUH was unbelievable, but I never resent him for it, because he raised us there with him,” said Kevin. “Every single Friday and Saturday, my siblings and I would come to SLUH. We would be at the football games, the soccer games, the basketball games. We were within a rope’s distance of Dad while he worked. I’d look over my shoulder as a kid and see him interacting with the student section or the players on the field, and he was just so happy. I wanted to emulate him.”

While SLUH helped raise his kids, Dick Wehner rightly credits his wife Debbie for doing most of the heavy lifting.

“I married a great woman,” said Wehner. “My wife allowed me to live my dream.”

He pounded his desk for emphasis, and he cried. She gave up her job to be a full-time mom. She babysat. She cut coupons. She cooked, she cleaned, she gave rides... She gave Wehner the space to be larger than life in the eyes of thousands of young men.

“It’s hard not to get emotional thinking about how much she did for us,” echoed Kevin. “My mom did everything. As successful as my dad was as an Athletic Director, my mom was just as successful as a mother.”

Wehner in his classroom

Together, Debbie and Dick now have 10 children and 24 grandchildren (a 25th is on the way). Five of their ten children have followed Wehner into education. His oldest grandson is a sophomore at SLUH, and another just applied. Fifty years into a career in Catholic education, Wehner is teaching four theology classes, and he feels great — like he could go for another 50.

In short, “I am the richest flipping man in Affton” said Wehner. It’s a phrase his students and colleagues have heard many times,
and “it has nothing to do with money.”

He started crying again. This time he called my attention to his tears. He said he wouldn’t mind if I mentioned how much he cried during our conversation, because that’s who he is.

“It’s how I express how blessed I feel,” said Wehner. “Talking to you, I’m reminded that I have lived a damn good life. Here I am at 73 years old and St. Louis U. High still wants me to be here... I’m lucky to still be living my dream. I feel great, but if God would call me home tomorrow, I could say ‘I have lived a wonderful life.’”