Dr. John C. Willke, M.D., reposed quietly in the Lord on Friday, February 20.
He was born in 1926, served in World War II, and then went to medical school. Jack Willke was an obstetrician happily delivering babies and building his own family in Cincinnati when he became concerned about the growing acceptance of abortion among his professional colleagues.
So in 1971, he and his wife Barbara sat down at their kitchen table and wrote and then published a little paperback they called Handbook on Abortion. Their intention was to educate young women about what abortion really did to a tiny human being: obstetrics at an eighth-grade reading level.
Perhaps they hoped that right knowledge would lead to right action by the young people of Ohio. Little did they imagine how the book would change their lives. Two years later came Roe v. Wade – and suddenly the Handbook was in demand across the country, along with its authors.
The influence of this little book has been incalculable. Nobody will ever know how many copies have been distributed, because it was rarely sold – usually it was given away for free. Whatever proceeds there were went right back into the work. As of now, the Handbook has been through seven editions and translated into 21 languages. Eventually, the Willkes co-authored six other books in the field of human sexuality.
Barb—whom he always referred to smilingly as “my bride”, even at their last public speaking event in 2011—had been a nurse before she married Jack and became a mother. Before 1973, they had volunteered as ordinary Catholic laypeople educating young people and doing pre-marital counseling. Perhaps that was where their unflappable good manners, natural sensitivity to others, and innate teaching skills were honed.
Though he remained on the senior attending staff of the Providence and Good Samaritan hospitals in Cincinnati for forty years, saving babies through public policy became Jack’s life. First, he and Barbara founded Cincinnati Right to Life. Then Ohio Right to Life. Then, along with Dr. Carolyn Gerster and Dr. Mildred Jefferson and others, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).
Creating a pro-life presence in Washington, D.C., proved more demanding than the founders had anticipated, and in 1980, Jack was summoned forth, Cincinnatus-like, to become its President. He begged off in 1983, but they brought him back in 1984, and this time he remained there for ten years.
Not only was Jack a gifted doctor, educator, and lecturer—he was also a gifted manager and lobbyist. He built a solid team, one that has stood the test of time, and established a permanent presence for NRLC in the nation’s capital.
Those were some of the most tempestuous years in the history of the pro-life movement, and Jack remained unfailingly gracious, polite, and honest no matter how tense the situation or how passionate the disagreements.
By the time he left Washington, Jack realized that abortion was not going to be banned in his lifetime. But he was resolved to fight smarter, and continued to be a pioneer.
In 1991 he and Brad Mattes founded the Life Issues Institute (LII) with the purpose of reinvigorating the pro-life message. Jack had recruited Brad into the pro-life movement while Brad was in high school.
When Brad took that job, he had Jack Willke on a pedestal and his greatest fear was that working with him would cause that perch to topple. “In almost 24 years working side by side, it never did,” Brad recalls.
Jack was a pioneer in actively engaging the minority community in Life issues. He hired Dr. Arnold Culbreath in to be Director of Protecting Black Life. And he was an even more important pioneer in another way: he not only understood the science and philosophy of the culture of life, but he also grasped the vital importance of marketing and messaging it right.
Jack realized—and data supported it—that the messaging originally used by the pro-life movement was not working. “It’s a baby, it’s a sin to kill it” was not being heard by the newly-liberated daughters of the sixties—and certainly not moving their hearts.
“Love them both” was Jack’s message—focus on both the mother and the baby. The shift was not universally welcomed, and Jack had to defend the new approach to co-combatants not yet willing to abandon the message that had first motivated their activism.
In Washington, there’s a small species known as “power couples:” glamorous women with high-level jobs married to powerful men. Jack and Barb were too authentically solid Midwestern Catholic to be called glamorous. Nor did Jack ever have “power” in the sense that the world understands it. Unlike most of that species, Jack and Barb were never on an ego trip. It was never about them; it was always about the unborn.
But together, as a couple, they were a true power for good. They remained happily married; they raised their six children right; for decades, they were a true team. And their influence is incalculable. Barb preceded Jack by two years, and those close to the family know that Jack was eager to rejoin her now.
May the angels welcome them both to Paradise.
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Connie Marshner has been a pro-life, pro-family researcher, grassroots trainer, organizer, and lobbyist; manager; writer; homeschooler; editor; campaign adviser; coalition leader; fundraiser; and political strategist. She is absolutely thrilled now to be a blogger for Human Life Review.