His childhood nickname came from a villain that appeared in a radio show he used to listen to as a kid in the 1930s. But his advocacy for peace and justice is a legacy that leaves a lasting mark on the culture and values of St. Ambrose University.
Rev. William "Digger" Dawson '50 died on December 13 at the age of 84, just one week after being honored with SAU's McMullen Award during the Feast of St. Ambrose Mass at Christ the King Chapel.
"He literally was the change that he wanted to see in the world," said Chloë Stodt '74, director of music at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Lenexa, Kan. "I recall walking with Digger through the chapel on our way to dinner on a very cold, winter evening about two years ago. He was moving slowly and having trouble breathing. ‘It's so cold–think of all the homeless people,' he remarked, characteristically putting the focus on others."
His passion for peace only was matched by his passion for life–and celebrating it.
"‘Hello? This is St. Ambrose calling. I hear you have a birthday!' was a message left more than once on my voicemail," Stodt remembered.
Norm Freund '75, now a philosophy professor at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, said he came to St. Ambrose during the Vietnam era, hungering to discover meaning in his own life. "I found it through the teachings and witness of Digger Dawson," he said.
Freund left Ambrose and pursued a doctorate in philosophy, devoting his research to the philosophy of peace.
"I heard of his passing just before going to my final Philosophy of Peace and War class, a course I developed through Fr. Dawson's inspiration many years ago," he said. "The dream and commitment to peace live on through all those inspired by this great man over the years," Freund said.
After earning a Master of Arts in history from St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, Fr. Dawson returned to St. Ambrose in 1961, where he spent his 40-plus-year career in devoted pursuit of peace and social justice.
He began the student organization Ambrosians for Peace and Justice, as well as an interdisciplinary minor in peace and justice. His legacy lives on through a number of university-wide initiatives, including a social justice award given by the School of Social Work to recognize champions who promote and advance human rights in the world.
But beyond his ministry, he also is remembered fondly for his jovial personality, zany jokes and warm smile.
"I did not know Fr. Dawson on a personal level," said Rebecca Payne, a St. Ambrose freshman. "But I did get to meet him recently when a group of us went caroling at the Kahl Home. We went to the table where he was eating dinner and sang ‘Joy to the World.' I will always remember the look on his face that day, a sweet, caring smile I am sure everyone who knew him had seen before."
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