By Barb Arland-Fye
John Kiley, social action director for the Diocese of Davenport, is being remembered this week as a man who followed Jesus’ Gospel message to reach out to others in need.
Kiley, 58, died of an apparent heart attack Feb. 15 at home in Davenport.
Although he served the diocese just 18 months, he devoted his life’s work to social service and led by example, those who know him say.
“I have never met anybody who lived more fully the passage in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me …’ John extended that to everybody around him,” said Bishop Martin Amos. “He always seemed sensitive to what anybody needed or wanted.”
A devoted husband and father, he may have been one of the first stay-at-home dads, taking care of his young daughter Joanne in 1975-76. In the late 1970s, he was a counselor for the Youth Service Bureau in Rock Island County, Ill., where he and his longtime friend, Randy Richards, worked as counselors to troubled juveniles.
It was a job that required a deep passion, energy and emotional stamina for helping the kids, said Richards, now chairman of the managerial studies department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.
He and Kiley later worked together in the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA) program that helped provide unemployed and underemployed people with the skills they needed to succeed in life. The agency later became known as the Job Training Partnership Alliance, which Kiley headed for a number of years in Davenport. In that work, Kiley helped to develop staff members so that they became leaders of organizations in their own right, Richards said.
Later, Kiley went to work for United Way of the Quad-Cities Area, eventually serving as president before joining the Diocese of Davenport as social action director in 2007.
“All of those years he worked to make sure that the people least prepared to be successful in life had a shot. He did it with intelligence. He wasn’t a bureaucrat running a program,” Richards said.
He also was a lot of fun, friends and colleagues say. He loved music, movies, dancing, tennis, reading, running and spending time with family. He found countless reasons to celebrate, which helped keep people’s spirits up in the sometimes wearying work of social justice. He was not above putting on a goofy hat or wearing an outrageous red velvet smoking jacket to the office on occasion.
“He wasn’t a one-note person. He lived a symphonic life,” Richards observed.
“His lasting legacy was that he showed what it meant to love … John knew what love was and he acted on love — beyond emotion — with his family, his friends and hopefully with the community.”
Doing unto others
The examples are endless.
On Valentine’s Day, Kiley had pulled into the parking lot at diocesan headquarters where he saw Msgr. John Hyland, the diocese’s vicar general, brushing snow off the sidewalk leading to Msgr. Hyland’s garage. “John pulled in, got out of his car and walked over, telling me, ‘Be careful that you don’t slip and fall; let me help you,’” Msgr. Hyland recalled. “He was so willing to be of service and was truly a ‘servant leader.’ He will be deeply missed by all and especially by our chancery staff,” Msgr. Hyland said.
The day after Kiley died Esmeralda Guerrero, his administrative assistant, was listening to voice mail messages recorded over the weekend when she heard his voice. He wished her a happy Valentine’s Day, and a happy birthday. “He tried to leave it in Spanish, too,” she said, referring to her native language. “I started crying.
“To me he wasn’t like a boss, he was like a friend. I would tell him about things I could not do, and he would say, ‘Yes, you can.’”
One thing she told him she absolutely couldn’t do was speak in front of an audience. He insisted she could. So when she was asked to do a reading at his Feb. 17 funeral vigil, she said yes. “He’s putting me to the test. I have to do it, for him.”
Two predecessors in the Social Action Department — Msgr. Marvin Mottet and Dan Ebener, who also were his longtime friends — said Kiley was perfect for the job.
“In social action it’s not about managing little projects here and there. It’s about exercising leadership in a way that inspires many people to get involved,” Ebener said.
“That was one of John’s real gifts, to inspire people to bring out the best in other people. The two qualities that come to mind when I think of John are humility and grace. He was humble and he was graceful. He was very graceful in the way he treated others.”
Kiley also was an incredible networker who “knew everybody and was able to work the system to benefit the community,” Ebener added.
Msgr. Mottet described Kiley as “confident and very dedicated to working for justice and peace and the church’s Catholic social teaching.
“We were supposed to leave on (Feb. 18) for the National Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. He would have met so many people and they would have enjoyed meeting him. That’s going to be a difficult meeting.”
Reaching out to the community
Leaders of other faith communities and social service organizations praised Kiley for his commitment to serve and work with others in the greater community.
His work in mobilizing a response to the crisis created by the collapse of John Lewis Community Services Inc. was one example, said Ron Quay, executive director of Churches United of the Quad City-Area. “He’s someone the community will miss — the social action community as well as the larger community.”
Allan Ross, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, said: “We in the Jewish community are shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of our good friend and community leader, John Kiley. John worked tirelessly for social justice and understanding between peoples of all races and religions, and his passion for doing what is right was infectious to all who knew him. John was a true ‘mensch’ — the Yiddish word meaning a person of integrity and honor. We will miss him greatly.”
Lisa Killinger, outreach coordinator for the Muslim Community of the Quad-Cities, was struck by Kiley’s cheerfulness and kindness. “He’s one of the warmest and brightest men I’ve known,” she said. All that is good about Catholicism was embodied in Kiley, she added.
“He was a very thoughtful guy, a deliberate guy. He went about doing what needed to be done and always was of service to the community in a business-like fashion, which earned him consummate respect,” said Cathy Bolkcom, a longtime friend. “I think he really found his niche in social action work for the diocese.”
Glenn Leach, a volunteer in the diocese’s Social Action Department, observed that “So few things in social action are the result of a single person,” and Kiley was well aware of that fact. He had a gift for working with others to make things happen. “He put a mark on the wall for the rest of us to shoot for.”
Loxi Hopkins, a volunteer who leads the diocese’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development, will miss the sense of fun that Kiley created in the office, his celebration of life and his compassion and dedication to social justice. She has no doubts that his presence will continue to be felt in the office.
“We have to go on to honor the things he did. We have to work to make them happen.”