In November 2019, Doug Wasko holds great-grandson Asa, flanked by grandson Sam and son Jim. (Courtesy Jim Wasko)
In November 2019, Doug Wasko holds great-grandson Asa, flanked by grandson Sam and son Jim. (Courtesy Jim Wasko)

SUBLIMITY — You never know where you’ll find a hero. Living simply and happily in a mobile home park here is one of the greats of Oregon Catholic education.

Doug Wasko, 79, taught, coached and administered at three Catholic high schools in western Oregon between 1971 and 2001. He left an enduring vision of Catholic schools as centers of spiritual discernment, encounter with the Lord and love of neighbor.

“Doug Wasko has been a brilliant teacher, thoughtful retreat leader, profound marriage adviser, and skilled school administrator. But above all else, he has been a devoted minister,” said Mike Hughes, a student at Jesuit High School in the 1970s when Wasko taught there. Hughes would later become a colleague as a Jesuit High theology teacher and then athletic director, observing Wasko’s later career at Regis High School.

“The kingdom of God has been at the center of his life work,” Hughes said. “Doug’s focus has always been on forming a more just, loving, welcoming and spiritual community. He cares for the person in front of him, always sharing great love, guidance and wisdom. He didn’t just teach theology, he taught students. He didn’t just talk about love and respect, he gave love and respect.”

He grew up fast

Wasko was born in Oakland, California, during World War II, one of six children of a devout Catholic shipyard welder. His mother and older brother suffered from asthma and so the family moved to the drier climes of southern Idaho when young Doug was 3. His father bought a shop in the small town of Buhl and the growing Catholic family lived in a two-bedroom house next door, along the old Oregon Trail.

“There were 30 churches and 2,000 people,” said Wasko.

The only time the children missed Mass at Immaculate Conception in Buhl was if they were deathly ill. If Doug were out hunting for a weekend with his father, they hiked to Sunday Mass and then back to continue the hunt. The Wasko children prayed a mandatory rosary each evening.

In 1958, when Doug was in high school, his mother died of cancer. Bereft, he opened himself even more to Catholic life.

“So often we think faith is rooted in the times when things go well, but so many times it is rooted in when things don’t go well,” Wasko said.

He had to grow up fast, helping care for younger siblings.

Wasko attended the University of Utah, where he lived in the Newman Center for a time. He studied hard and played both football and baseball, a rare feat in collegiate athletics. An outfielder and catcher, he set school records for baseball and in 1964 was recruited to play on a farm club for the Kansas City Athletics. His pay for the season was $500 and a plane ticket.

Around that time, he and wife Sherry wed and had their first child.

Wasko played in Virginia and Florida; then it became clear he should focus on family life instead of hoping for the major leagues. He returned to Salt Lake and got a job loading trains.

Becomes an educator

The rector of the Cathedral of The Madeleine took note and asked him to coach the school football team. The squad excelled and then the rector asked him to teach reading, math, science, physical education — and religion. His career trajectory was set at age 22, just as the Second Vatican Council revived the sense of the laity’s mission to the world.

His father helped him spruce up his religion knowledge in sessions the men called “stump the jock.” Wasko recalls guiding second graders to prepare for first confession — and comforting nervous youngsters after urinary mishaps in the confessional.

Needing more income to support his family, he accepted an offer to teach and coach at a public school in Warrenton, Oregon. The windy, cool, log-littered north Oregon coast came as a shock. But he learned to love the Northwest. A few years later, he took a job at Milwaukie High School, close to St. John the Baptist Parish, where the Wasko kids attended school. Wasko recalls Father Lawrence Saalfeld, pastor, saying of the students, “These are our children and we will take care of them.” That notion would stick with Wasko through his career.

In 1971, the Christian Brothers at nearby La Salle High School heard about Wasko and recruited him to become athletic director, founding football coach and physical education teacher. The brothers advised him “never to smile before Christmas,” meaning it’s good to be tough with students at the start and lighten up later if it seems right. He threw himself into the work, and soon realized he was neglecting time with his family.

Marriage mentors

In 1972, he and Sherry attended a Marriage Encounter weekend.

“It was a major transformation for me,” Wasko said of the Catholic group, which seeks to enhance marriages via spiritual life, communication and sharing. “I envisioned our love growing, and it did.” One of the couple’s daughters would say that through Marriage Encounter “we got our father back.”

At the same time, the Waskos became popular speakers on marriage in Oregon and elsewhere. They helped establish Marriage Encounter at a retreat in New York.

One of the Oregon priest leaders of Marriage Encounter was Jesuit Father Chuck Suver. In 1976, Father Suver convinced Wasko to apply to work at the all-boys Jesuit High School. By virtue of Marriage Encounter, Wasko’s repertoire expanded beyond sports and he began teaching theology classes on marriage, relationships, sacraments and social justice. He devised the now famous community service education at the school, urging students to help at their parishes. In 14 years at Jesuit, he watched students transform and soften via service.

He continued to coach, leading Jesuit baseball. In interviews with sports writers, Wasko was graceful and focused on the strengths of his players. “These kids are really receptive,” he told the Sentinel of the Jesuit baseball team in 1981. “They’re the hard­working, scrappy-type kids. We have a chance to be pretty good.”

He thought he’d spend a happy career at the Southwest Portland school.

Regis calling

He had received principal training and certification. The only thing that would make him leave Jesuit, he told himself, would be the chance to lead a small Catholic high school, preferably in a rural area. That’s when Father Tim Murphy called from Regis in Stayton. It was 1990 and the school needed a principal. It took prayer and discernment, but Wasko said yes.

His first act was to hold a retreat for faculty and staff. He wanted them to be alive with belief so they could pass it along to students. He and Sherry would put on retreats for Regis faculty at the start and end of each school year.

“He was always very supportive of my work and was a very positive influence for all of the teachers,” said longtime Regis teacher Greg Pramuk. “He was a solid, steady leader for the school and truly dedicated to the mission of Catholic education.” 

Doug Wasko, principal of Regis High, teaches a religion class in 1996. (Gerry Lewin/Catholic Sentinel)

Faith focus

At small schools, principals handle many and varied duties. Wasko administered nimbly, taught passionately and coached with zeal. His educational ideas were based on discernment among God, teachers and students. He describes it this way: “We want your best. We don’t know what your best is, but we will get there.”

He told students he wanted their finest not only on the field, but in the classroom, the lunchroom and at home. As in sports, he would say, all parts of life depend on moving forward little by little.

But even sports was about something deeper for Wasko.

“Athletics is a lab for faith,” he told the Sentinel in 1997. “Athletes have to deal with reconciling and working together and re­direction.”

In partnership with local Catholic businessman Clint Bentz, he started a junior retreat led by seniors, a model that later became common and beloved at Catholic high schools. He saw many young people go through transformations on the weekends.

“Can you imagine that? Seniors talking about their faith,” Wasko told the Sentinel in 1997. “And they have asked to do more. They are hungry for something more in their lives.”

On the retreats many hit upon that vital question: What will you do with your life? Wasko recalls a retreat that started slowly before a young man admitted he hoped to be a priest to serve God and God’s people. That launched three hours of sometimes tearful sharing in which the other boys said they wanted the kind of faith the first lad had.

“Faith is never static, ever,” Wasko said. “What is faith rooted in? It is rooted in seeing what is possible.”

A Catholic school’s job, Wasko told the Sentinel in 2000, is to give children tools so that they can do their own ongoing learning, especially in faith.

Ability to connect

In 2001, he took a post at Monroe Catholic High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, and later retired back to Oregon. He reconnected to Regis, and by 2007 was serving as a mentor to students there.

“Doug was the longest lasting Regis principal and was able to achieve this distinction by developing good relationships with his staff, the students, and the community,” said Mike Bauer, longtime teacher and coach at Regis. “He had the ability to connect with each of these groups on a very personal level. Staff and students had tremendous respect for Doug. We all felt like we were part of a team that wanted to create the best experience possible for students.”

“Doug has a big heart,” said Tom Rothenberger, longtime running coach at Jesuit. “He is one of the most genuine and caring men I have ever worked with in my 40 years of education.”

Wasko would like to spread a message. He regrets hearing Catholics say they can’t afford a parish school. Many times he has seen a school close and then watched the parish decline in following years. “We can’t afford not to have Catholic schools,” Wasko said. “People say children are the church of the future. No, they are the church of today.”