For Kathie and Joe Walsh, life is all about love's labors found

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

They are like … two lines that run parallel but somehow connect … soulmates on separate missions … birds of a feather who somehow come together …

Well, you get the idea. With all due respect to Tolstoy, it turns out not all happy families are alike. At any rate not all love stories. This one is about work and family — and animals.

Nothing about Kathie Walsh, M.D., and Joe Walsh, Ph.D. is cookie cutter.

These proverbial professional do-gooders and family folk have, taking different paths, touched hundreds of lives in Oak Park and beyond.

Joe, 68, was the first-born boy amid a string of five girls, nine kids in all. At age 5, he and his Irish-American clan moved to Oak Park, where he attended Ascension Catholic School, where he was an altar boy. Now he's a permanent deacon for the congregation that he has been his spiritual home for over 60 years.

Kathie, 10 months older than he, or so Joe jokes, was a parochial school girl who dreamed of being a doctor. The only daughter of a dad who died in WWII, she eventually became a doctor, in part, because of him.

Supporting roles

They met as freshman at Loyola University's Lakeshore Campus. He was running for class president. She was pre-med.

Married about 4½ years later at Ascension, they had four kids in five years, and Kathie became a stay-at-home mom.

"I supported Joe through his master's degree, and the night I went into labor with David, our first son, I was typing his thesis. We were in Oak Park at the time, but I was delivering in Evanston. I'm saying to him, 'I'm going to have the baby tonight, and we need to get to the hospital.' Joe was saying, 'OK, but how about if you type another page or so,'" recalls Kathie, laughing.

Then the idea becoming a doctor resurfaced, and Joe supported that.

"I was 33 with four kids between the ages of 2 and 7 when I entered medical school, so I wasn't your typical student," says Kathie, who retired from her clinical practice in Oak Park in 1997. "I did most of my studying at 11 p.m. on the front porch and sometimes brought my youngest, Matthew, pink-frosted donut in hand, to study groups in the library. It wasn't easy, but I was fortunate to have amazing support, especially from my husband. Loyola really took a chance on me, and I'm grateful they did."

In 2012, years after shifting gears to become a medical educator at her alma mater, Kathie was awarded the prestigious Stritch Medal for inspiring leadership, contributions to medical education and tireless commitment to compassionate, patient-centered care for all, says Eva M. Bading, M.D., chairperson and professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Loyola's Stritch School of Medicine.

"Kathie is the third woman to win it in a long line of men," says Bading. "Becoming a doctor at 33 years old was very unusual at the time. I mean, she had four kids, and absolutely there are not very many women in the country who in her circumstances have gone back to medical school and become a doctor."

Trading duties

In those early years, life was tense, and her four young children had mixed emotions about the abrupt lifestyle change.

Seven-year-old David stopped brushing his teeth and decided to run away from home on his bicycle.

"He made it to the corner, and realized he wasn't allowed to cross the street, so that kind of limited his [escape]," Kathie says.

"Charming daughter Maureen," recalls Kathie, voiced her opinion upon meeting Ollie, their 71-year-old babysitter, at the front door of their Oak Park home on her first day of work.

She said, "'I'm Maureen, and I'm not happy that you are here,'" Kathie testifies. "This would warm the heart of any new babysitter." She describes that time as "one of the most difficult [periods], when I was in school and he was running for office (Joe served a term on the District 97 school board).

"As a partner in marriage," she observes, "especially when you're both working full-time, you need someone there to take care of you, and it is often hard to find the energy to take care of someone else."

So they flexed and traded parental responsibilities, and counted on family members, friends and their caregiver for extra support.

"We divided duties in a new way," says Joe. "Kathie had always done the shopping and so forth. I took that over. I packed the four kids up and went to the Jewel. That was a Saturday adventure. I have not kept up with the shopping [since], I assure you." Kathie confirms that assessment as they share a laugh.

Life could be chaotic and a zoo — a petting zoo.

"I had been at West Sub doing a rather complicated delivery of a baby on a bright and early Sunday morning," Kathie recalls. "I came home, and there was our dog Abby, delivering her puppies — much more easily than my patient had. Another time I came home from school and the dog was chasing the cat, chasing one of the hamsters or gerbils, and of course, the children were chasing the dog." She can laugh about it now.

They've had various combinations of pets for the last 46 years. That includes two litters of dogs and two of cats.

"Each of our four children had a personal pet — gerbil, hamster, guinea pig — during elementary school," says Kathie. "We had a big outdoor koi pond for about 20 years in Oak Park and still have a small outdoor pond in our current home."

Over the years, she estimates caring for about 200 total pets, "if individual fish count!"

At the moment, the extended family includes Opal, their 3-year-old black lab; six song birds in a cage (very loud during interviews), and a large fish tank.

"The joy I get from them makes the care for them insignificant," Kathie says. "I really do like outdoor birds. But unless you have birds, I don't think you can quite appreciate just how charming they really are. They have personalities and are very entertaining. Love birds are particularly charming. They are playful, affectionate, and have a pretty song.

"We have always enjoyed being around living things, plants, animals, people. We certainly enjoy our gardens, flowers, tomatoes," she says.

Joe adds, "We recognize life in all its forms, and it is all inspirational to me."

They tried mightily to have family meals, and Joe tried his hand in the kitchen.

"We had pork chops every Tuesday night, and it was probably the worst decision of his life," says Matthew Walsh, now 38 and an anesthesiologist. "He would put the pork chops in the oven before he would pick us up from CCD, and without fail, the smoke alarm was going off when we came home."

By the end of medical school, they were able to get a place in Wisconsin.

"That, gave us new structure for family time together, with recreation built into it, and we would go about once a month," says Joe, who is also former president of the Oak Park and River Forest Mental Health Board.

Deacon couple

Five years ago these grandparents of nine grandkids — some local, others not —downsized into a cozy arts-and-crafts style brick bungalow in River Forest. As semi-retired doctors, now they are on call to babysit their kids' kids, which they do a lot.

In 2009, Joe was ordained a permanent deacon by Cardinal Francis George, and now he and Kathie are a "deacon couple" at Ascension. For Joe, this is his second calling.

"We are all sent here to be people for others," says Joe, professor and dean emeritus at Loyola University's School of Social Work in Chicago. "We do it in different ways and there is no best way. There are all kinds of approaches. For us, religion has been a clear factor, but it comes through the generations — my parents and their decisions. There is something about the professions we have chosen, medicine and social work, however you got to them. They enforce the idea that you are here to do something beyond yourself."

It took a couple of years to become a deacon. Joe went to class regularly, twice a week. So did Kathie.

"Unfortunately, the deacon wives don't get the ordination as the deacon does, but Kathie was willing to do everything to make this work," says Rev. Larry McNally, pastor of Ascension. "For that, I give her a lot of credit."

Deacon Joe gives regular homilies to the people in the pews, and with the assist of Dr. Kathie, pursues his ministry of baptisms, burials and pre-marriage counseling for young couples.

As part of their deacon couple commitment, Joe is the chaplain of Ascension's Respect Life Committee and Kathie is the leader of and head catechist for SPRED, a parish program that provides religious education to children with special needs, age 6-10. She also coordinates the Friday PADS volunteers.

Both still work on a part-time basis, and participate in other local civic activities, as well.

"Here it is," says Father Larry. "If you were to make a movie about deacon couples, it would be about them. And after 46 years of marriage, you can just see their communication with each other. They spend time together and apart. But they always come to church as a couple, and you can see they are so much in love. [The diaconate] seems to be an extension of how they have been leading their lives all along."

To see a Loyola Medical School video honoring Dr. Kathie Walsh's service, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kmUkyjH5wY.

Reader Comments

2 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Georgia from Oak Park  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 11:26 AM

Beautiful! Your story has inspired me today!

Marty Lane from Chicago  

Posted: January 30th, 2013 11:23 AM

Just this morning, I went to Mass and breakfast with Joe, which we do at least twice a year. I have known Joe since 1962 at Loyola University. When I had a difficult period in my life in 2009, he helped me greatly. They are a terrific couple and support each other so generously. Kathie's story of going to Loyola's Stritch School of Medicine is amazing! Bravo to a wonderful couple!

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