Kay and Mike Whitney pose on their wedding day in 1967 at St. Alice Church in Springfield. They are still members of the parish. (Courtesy Mike Whitney)
Kay and Mike Whitney pose on their wedding day in 1967 at St. Alice Church in Springfield. They are still members of the parish. (Courtesy Mike Whitney)
" Every Catholic community needs a man like him.

" — Todd Cooper, director of special ministries of the archbishop, on Mike Whitney
SPRINGFIELD — Mike Whitney took instructions for becoming Catholic 50 years ago while driving his police cruiser on the night shift down the streets and alleys of Eugene. Ever since, Whitney has been a Catholic force of nature.

At 74, he’s been one of the most active parishioners in the state.

Whitney served on the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council until his term expired recently. He and wife Kay were longtime Marriage Encounter leaders. He announced Marist High School football and girls basketball and sat on the Marist board of directors. He served on the board of Catholic Community Services of Lane County for 12 years and on the Catholic Charities of Oregon board for six years.

At his beloved St. Alice Parish, Whitney has done a bit of everything. The only church gig he didn’t like was eighth grade religious education. After a year of that, he transferred to first graders. Whitney also served on the parish school board, worked for decades on the parish council and even devised a safety plan in case of a shooter or natural disaster.

“What I love about Mike is that he has a whole-parish perspective,” said Father Mark Bentz, pastor of St. Alice. “He wants whatever will help the parish thrive, even if it isn’t his idea or preference. He also puts his whole heart into anything he does for the church.”

Raised in Junction City by a single mother, Whitney met his future wife Kay on a blind date. She was a Springfield Catholic. The pair wed at St. Alice in 1967, the year after graduating from high school. In 1969, Whitney joined the Eugene Police.

Though he wasn’t Catholic, he started attending Mass at St. Alice with Kay. The couple’s six children would be baptized at the church.

In 1971, St. Alice got a young assistant priest, Father John Waldron. The gregarious Irishman assembled young couples, including Mike and Kay, for faith sharing. The priest told Whitney he’d always wanted to ride in a police car. The precinct sergeant, who was Catholic, approved the plan. And so Father Waldron joined young Officer Whitney on the graveyard shift on weekends. When things slowed down, the priest smoked cigarettes like a machine and Whitney slowly puffed cigars. This went on for a few weekends when Father Waldron had a question: “Why have you not joined the church?”

Whitney replied, “Because nobody’s ever asked.”

To which Father Waldron said, “Well, I’m asking.”

That started a period of Catholic education interrupted only by stops to arrest suspects, take reports and transport inebriated college students to the drunk tank.

Whitney became Catholic the following Easter. Soon after, in 1973, he and Kay went on a Marriage Encounter weekend, a time in which couples learn to communicate better and choose to love more deeply.

“It changed our lives,” Whitney said.

They were asked to enter leadership of the organization at a time when it was booming. They attended meetings around the nation.

As for Whitney’s police career, he became a detective in his mid-20s and was assigned to work cases of child and sexual abuse. He gained national acclaim — including an hour on the Phil Donahue Show — for his innovation of using anatomically correct dolls when speaking with children so they could show him what happened to them. He’d gotten the idea at Eugene’s Saturday market where hippies sold the rather explicit figures.

By 30, after years of horrendous cases and calls in the middle of the night, Whitney was burned out. He began a period of discernment, identifying what gave him life and what sapped it.

He decided to become a private investigator, work he has now done for more than four decades. He put in full-time hours until just recently, when he scaled back to 25 hours per week.

He has two specialties. First is helping defense lawyers by investigating murder cases. The second is aiding the state by finding facts for wrongful termination lawsuits.

He’s worked about 100 murder cases, spurred on by his belief in the dignity of life and opposition to the death penalty. In eight cases, he found facts that led to a not guilty verdict. He is glad to save innocent people, but loses no sleep when guilty defendants get long prison sentences.

Whitney is an old school PI, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors.

“To get somebody to talk to you, it’s harder to throw you off the front steps than to hang up the phone on you,” he said.

Whitney has a knack at talking to people and encouraging them to talk to him. He’ll discuss anything with zeal — football, grandchildren, cars. So, witnesses usually chat.

“I am straight up with people,” Whitney said. “I don’t lie. And just a little bit of humor builds a relationship with people.”

He once made a kidnap and robbery suspect guffaw by saying she and her partner were like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. The woman, who had been mum for everyone else, told him almost everything.

“Mike is very good with people and he has a lot of good experience working with people on both sides,” said Peter Fahy, who has worked with Whitney for two decades. “He has a very finely honed moral compass, which I admire tremendously. He is an upstanding guy. He can evaluate the worth of a case, look at it and figure out what an equitable resolution would be.”

Father David Jaspers, former pastor in Springfield and now at Ascension in Portland, recalls an early meeting of the parish council when Whitney and others recognized that they were older white guys leading a parish that was largely young and Latino. Whitney was glad to make way, and even started attending Mass in Spanish to meet people.

Father Jaspers recalled that when he asked Whitney anything, the response usually was, “Anything you need, Father.”

Once, after Father Jaspers chided parishioners a bit, Whitney put a hand on his shoulder and said, “You know, Father sometimes people just need a good pat on the back.” The priest still thinks of that often.

Todd Cooper, director of special ministries of the archbishop, is lead staffer for the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.

“Mike is a fabulous witness of the Catholic faith,” said Cooper. “He was a model member of the council. He is always positive and encouraging, untiring in zeal, undaunted when facing challenges, and constantly looking for ways to build up the church. Every Catholic community needs a man like him.”