January 13, 2017

Catholic values, spirit of caring and love of faith connect award-winning members of archdiocese

By John Shaughnessy

2017 Celebrating Catholic School Values Award logoThree pieces of wisdom guide Tom Spencer’s life and faith, starting with the advice that his mother gave him as a child.

“One of the things she taught me in life was that you’re always practicing to become a better Catholic,” says Spencer, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis.

That approach marks the lives of Spencer and the three other recipients of the 2017 Celebrating Catholic School Values Award who will be honored on Feb. 9: Kevin Johnson of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis, and Van and Kathy Willis of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany.

(Related: Tickets are available for 21st annual Celebrating Catholic School Values program)

Tom SpencerFor Spencer, “always practicing to become a better Catholic” is tied to a question that is the second foundation of his life and faith: “Are you and I changing other people’s lives?”

Spencer has tried to answer that question by his numerous efforts throughout the archdiocese to help pregnant women in need, to increase vocations, and to support the caring ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis.

He’s an advocate of the Women’s Care Center in Indianapolis because of the way “it supports pregnant women, and encourages them to learn more about the gift of life while providing resources to help raise their child.”

He’s also been a longtime member of the Serra Club of Indianapolis, promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. At his parish, his significant involvement includes coordinating trips to Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad for students at St. Luke School.

“Besides trying to be a good child of God and a good husband and father, my next most important work is support of vocations,” says Spencer, the father of two grown children. “I’ve always had a love for the priesthood and religious life.”

That love shined through in his friendship with the late Father Thomas Murphy during the time the archdiocesan priest and fellow University of Notre Dame graduate battled Parkinson’s disease.

“He was the priest I would never become,” says Spencer, who is also a member of Legatus of Indianapolis, an organization for Catholic business leaders. “He had high expectations for me, and I didn’t want to let him down. Everyone can change the world—if only in a small way—and he changed my world.”

So has Spencer’s wife of 36 years, Gayle.

“She’s a very devout woman, and she’s been generous in sharing me with so many Catholic entities,” says Spencer, a 1972 graduate of Lafayette Central Catholic High School in Lafayette, Ind. “She’s my life mate, my best friend, and she enables me to be a good child of God. I hope I’ve done the same for her.”

Those words lead to the third foundation of Spencer’s life and faith, the foundation he considers the most important.

“My first job is to get myself, my wife and my kids to heaven,” he says. “That’s why we’re here. We’re here to know him, love him and serve him.”

Kevin Johnson’s call to love

Kevin Johnson’sKevin Johnson’s emotions overflow when he talks about how his life has been touched by the love and compassion that he believes is inherent in the Catholic faith.

He remembers the difference his fourth-grade teacher at Little Flower School in Indianapolis had on him during the year when his father died.

He recalls all the support his two children received when they were students at St. Ambrose School in Seymour.

And he’ll never forget the care and concern his son Tommy received when he was a student at Roncalli High School—the school he attended after their family moved back to Indianapolis, a time when Tommy had three serious surgeries at Riley Hospital for Children for a life‑threatening condition.

“Catholic education and our Catholic faith have shaped every part of my life,” says Johnson, a 1977 graduate of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis. “It’s been there to support us through the tough times, too.”

All those situations help explain Johnson’s strong commitment to supporting Catholic education and the faith.

He was president of the parish council during his family’s years at St. Therese of the Infant Jesus (Little Flower) Parish. He successfully led a $1.2 million building campaign at St. Ambrose Parish. And he has expanded the Special Religious Development (SPRED) program for adults with special needs at his current parish, Holy Spirit in Indianapolis.

“The thing I love about the SPRED participants is they’re non-judgmental, and they take every day as the gift it is,” he says. “It’s one of those things where you get more out of it than you give. It’s powerful.”

Johnson is also on the board of directors at Scecina, serves as vice‑chairman of the Archdiocesan Catholic Schools Commission, and is a member of the Knights of Columbus. And his community involvement reflects concern for the homeless and children who live in struggling economic areas.

“I feel like Jesus came here to show us love and compassion. That’s what we’re called to do. I try to do my little part in the process. I fail often.”

The one area where he’s sure he has succeeded is in his choice of his spouse, Lori—a relationship that dates back to their school days together at Little Flower and Scecina.

“She has been the rock,” Johnson says about his wife of 35 years. “She’s always been supportive of my very busy career while also being involved in the communities and the parishes. Honestly, I feel if I’m getting this award, she should be, too. She’s involved as much as I am.

“We’re proud of the Catholic Church and what it means to the world. We’ve had the love and support of a lot of people.”

Kathy and Van Willis’ key to happiness

Kathy and Van WillisFor Kathy and Van Willis, their lives, their family and their marriage are all centered on the power of “example.”

When Kathy was 5, her father died—leading her mother on a journey that would take her back to school to earn a degree in education, become a teacher and principal, and model for her four children the importance of “Catholic service, faith and love.”

“She instilled that ethic in us that you served,” Kathy says.

When Van met Kathy when they were both in law school, he saw how much her Catholic faith meant to her and chose to become a Catholic, too. He also viewed his choice as a way the two of them would eventually follow the example of his Southern Baptist parents—going to church as a family and “helping people whenever you can.”

Now married for 28 years, Kathy and Van have tried to set that example of “Catholic service, faith and love” for their four children—through their extensive commitment to their southern Indiana community and their parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Albany.

Kathy’s involvement at their parish has included serving on its school commission, the liturgy committee and the faith formation commission while also leading retreats, helping with funeral meals, and writing and editing the parish newsletter. She has also served on the board of directors at St. Elizabeth Catholic Charities.

Van has served their parish as an usher, a lector, president of its pastoral council, and a volunteer at its soup kitchen. He is currently the president of the board of trustees at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville.

His community involvement has also included working with the Floyd County Head Start program, Goodwill of Southern Indiana, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Hope Southern Indiana—“an organization of about 35 churches that provides financial assistance and job training to the neediest people in the community.”

As a couple, the two full-time attorneys also have served as co-chairs of a capital campaign at their parish. They’ve also seen the impact that their example has had on their children.

“One is a teacher, one is a nurse, one is studying to become an occupational therapist,” says Van, noting that their youngest is a junior at Providence High School.

“I started taking them to the soup kitchen at the parish at a young age. It shows them that a lot of people don’t have the advantages they have. And it’s the right thing to help other people. You can tell them things, but if you show them, it means a lot more.”

Kathy adds, “I’ve really tried to teach them that you have to involve God in the day-to-day decisions of your life—that you have to take it to prayer.”

Their approach has done more than helped their parish, their community and their children. They say it’s also strengthened their marriage.

“Van and I are pretty like-minded,” Kathy says. “We try to share our time, talent and treasure in the ways we can. Everything I do is related to my faith. I just feel like I want to share my faith. When you have something that is so important to you, you want to share it.

“I feel that is the key to happiness. I love to serve. It brings a joy to my life that I want to share with others.” †

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