Father William Dawson dies at 84


By Msgr. Francis Henricksen

A gentle soul, loved by all, with a goal of universal justice and peace, Father William Francis Dawson was called to another award ceremony last week.

All previous kudos were richly deserved, but none like the welcome award of citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. At 84, he gave 57 years of active ministry to the Church as priest in pastoral service and as a communicator of truth.

He became a legend in his own time, so that death cannot subtract one thing from the legacy he bequeathed to all who knew him. A cheerful smile and a joyful laugh were the parentheses to a depth of knowledge and a lived experience of justice and peace. The only anger that may ever have surfaced in his life would have to have happened on the golf course.


Like many who grew up in the years of the Great Depression, his life was limited by only possessing what was real in life and not distracted by material stuff. He lost his mother at an early age so that she was lost to his memory. Raised mostly by his older sisters — Mabel and Sister Beatrice, CHM, he never lost sight of what was of value and worthy of the effort to accomplish a goal.

However, he was human and considered his religious sister as “mean” at times. (Said with love, as most of us have accused our teachers of that trait.) Sr. Beatrice always claimed she had to take the summer off and spend it at Notre Dame, as he would never have gotten his doctorate if she didn’t go and type his dissertation for him.

Of course there will always be stories of how the title “Digger” was confirmed. In the course of nature, graves had to be dug and Fr. Bill shared some of that experience with his brother-in-law. It was an earned title. It will always be a title of endearment for those who have come to know and love him.

He will always be a part of the history of St. Ambrose University. That is summed up in the McMullen Award, so recently granted him: “in recognition of his embodiment of the University’s mission.” Those who for years have attended his celebration of the Eucharist and were moved by his preaching at St. Anthony Parish in Davenport will find something missing.

Each one of us — brother priests, students and former students, fellow faculty members, friends and family — will appreciate the touch of love of Fr. “Digger” Dawson that has made a difference in our lives. “Digger” has died, but the stories will go on.

So may his walk through life — his marches for peace in opposition to war and against all injustices, his love for life — continue to challenge us to struggle for that day when: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss.”  (Psalm 85:10)

Obituary for Fr. Dawson

Father William “Digger” Dawson, a retired professor and priest in the Diocese of Davenport, died Dec. 13 at Clarissa Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf. He was 84.

Born in Ottumwa, he attended Garfield and St. Mary and Catholic Central schools, all in Ottumwa.

Fr. Dawson attended an Army program at Wyoming University before enrolling and graduating from St. Ambrose College in Davenport. He completed his theology studies at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

On June 5, 1954, he was ordained by Bishop Ralph Hayes at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Fr. Dawson’s first assignment was as an assistant at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City from 1954-56. From 1956-61, he taught at St. Ambrose Academy which later become Assumption High School in Davenport.

Fr. Dawson served on faculty teaching philosophy at St. Ambrose College/University from 1961 until his retirement in 2005. He received his Ph.D. in 1968 from the University of Notre Dame. While at St. Ambrose, Fr. Dawson also served as student chaplain from 1968-74. During his years at St. Ambrose he earned Professor of the Year in 1968, 1970, 1988 and 1991.

In 1981 he began serving at St. Anthony Parish in Davenport.

In 1997 the Rev. William Dawson Social Justice Award was established in recognition of his commitment to social and economic justice and the promotion and advancement of human rights.

In 2006 St. Ambrose awarded him the Social Justice Award and in 2011 the McMullen award in recognition of his embodiment of the university’s mission.

In retirement Fr. Dawson stayed active within the SAU community and continued his ministry at St. Anthony Parish.

Fr. Dawson’s funeral was held Dec. 16 at Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose University campus. Burial followed at Priest Circle in Mt. Calvary Cemetery in Davenport.

In lieu of flowers memorials may be made to the Peace and Justice Center at St. Ambrose University.

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