Services for Father James Whalen planned Friday, Saturday and Monday

Father James Whalen, who for much of his life wore two hats — that of a journalism professor and that of a pastor of small country parish — died Tuesday, April 8, at St. Mary’s Home in St. Paul. He was 78.

Father Whalen retired from classroom teaching in 1993 after 35 years of developing the University of St. Thomas journalism program. He retired this year after 42 years as pastor of the small parish of St. Agatha in Coates, about 20 miles south of the Twin Cities. Along the way, he won the nation’s top journalism teaching award, and he was the longest, continuously serving pastor of the same parish in the archdiocese.

Visitation and services will be held in three locations on Friday, Saturday and Monday.

Father James Whalen

A visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 11, at Gill Brothers Funeral Chapel, 5801 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. The number at the chapel is (612) 861-6088.

A visitation and Mass of the Resurrection will be held Saturday, April 12, at St. Agatha Church in Coates. The visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m. and the Mass will begin at 10:3o a.m. Archbishop Harry Flynn will be the chief celebrant. A reception will follow the Mass.

A visitation and Mass of Christian Burial will be held Monday, April 14, at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on the St. Paul campus of the University of St. Thomas. The visitation will begin at 8:30 a.m. and the Mass will begin at 9 a.m. Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, will be the chief celebrant. Father John Malone will give the homily. Burial will be at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights.

“The university owes Father Whalen a huge debt of gratitude for his pioneering work in the Journalism Department and for his priestly leadership,” said Father Dease.

“He had wonderful, charismatic personality,” added Dr. Mark Neuzil, who now chairs the St. Thomas Journalism and Mass Communication Department. “It was the kind of personality you find in a leader, and he was one.

“Ethics runs through every course we offer in our department,” Neuzil added. “And that ties directly to the kind of journalism program Father Whalen developed here. The other mark he left is that this is a very teaching-oriented program … we are about teaching good journalists.”

“And oh, he was a character,” said Carole Jacobs, an administrative assistant in the Journalism Department and a friend of Whalen since the 1960s. “There are a lot of good stories about Father Whalen, that’s for sure. He was a great writer and speaker, and he loved his years as a teacher.”

“He was probably the best teacher I’ve ever heard about,” said Dave Nimmer, a former newspaper editor, television reporter and St. Thomas journalism teacher. “I never attended one of his classes, but I heard about Father Whalen from his students. He was passionate, knowledgeable and always ethical.

Nimmer recalled lunches and dinners at the Lexington Restaurant with Whalen and how they would talk shop about newspapers and what the news media should be doing better. “I was always amazed at how many staff would attend to our table.”

But Nimmer also remembered another side of the priest. “I was back at the paper and was going through a divorce. He called and we talked. He told me not to do anything stupid and to call him if I ever needed anything. That’s one of my fondest memories of Father Whalen.”

A native of Minneapolis, Whalen graduated from the St. Thomas Military Academy and earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota in 1948. He worked in advertising until 1953, when he enrolled in the St. Paul Seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1958 and the following year joined the St. Thomas faculty as its first full-time journalism teacher.

He returned to the University of Minnesota where in 1962 he earned a master’s in journalism with a minor in 17th century literature. While completing his graduate degree, Whalen also was chairing St. Thomas’ new Journalism Department, teaching a full load and developing new courses, recruiting students for the college, was a resident student adviser and dean in Dowling Residence Hall, was adviser to student publications and was pastor at St. Agatha.

In addition to an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Thomas and the Hames Alumni Honors Award from St. Thomas Academy, Whalen received the National Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, the University of Minnesota School of Journalism’s Distinguished Alumnus Award and the Professor of the Year Award from St. Thomas.

“Your greatest contribution was in the classroom as an articulate and impassioned educator who challenged students to think for themselves,” said the citation for his honorary doctorate. “You taught mass communication, history of journalism, persuasion in writing and critical writing. Your Ethics in Communication Class, a senior seminar that was one of the first of its kind, earned you a national
reputation as a tireless advocate for journalism ethics grounded in moral principles.”

In addition to his work with the university’s undergraduate journalism program, Whalen, along with senior vice president emeritus Quentin Hietpas, conceived and developed St. Thomas’ 19-year-old Master of Business Communication Program.

“It was a real privilege to work with him,” commented Dr. Nona Mason, who directs the program. “Father Whalen was absolutely committed to providing education for people who needed it and who could use it.”

More than 900 St. Thomas journalism alumni studied under Whalen during his 35-year tenure at the university. Thousands of other students took his classes but did not major in journalism or, as the department evolved, programs in advertising, media studies, public relations or broadcast journalism.

At St. Agatha in Coates, parishioners honored Whalen on March 2 for his 42 years of service to the small church. It’s a close-knit parish and Whalen came to know generations of its members. When he added up the numbers back in 2000, Whalen had officiated at 61 St. Agatha marriages, 213 baptisms and 47 funerals.

The parish was founded in 1871 by mostly Irish immigrants. In 2000, it had 84 registered families. “It’s the preaching that brings them in,” Whalen quipped at the time.

Whalen is survived by three sisters: Sally May and her husband, Peter, of Lakeville; Phyllis Curtin of Edina; and Trisha Pratt and her husband, Robert, of Neenah, Wis. He also is survived by 19 nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, Mae and Jack, and by a sister, Sue Hirsch.