The Rev. John Wandless, who knew the power of hope, gave hope to hundreds of young Kansas City men.
Wandless, 79, died on Wednesday.
As a Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Urban Ranger Corps, a Kansas City nonprofit community service organization, Wandless provided work, recognition and visions of a viable future to teenagers considered at-risk.
“He saw such a need,” said Julie Wandless Thompson, one of Wandless’ two children.
“When he decided to become a priest, he told the bishop he wanted to help disadvantaged youth.”
After graduating from high school in his native Pittsburgh in 1954 and serving in the U.S. Navy for four years, Wandless enrolled at what’s now Rockhurst University.
There he met Jane O’Neil, whom he married in 1962. They reared two children while he founded and operated Cactus Software, which tracked physician credentials for hospitals and health organizations.
In 1991 Jane Wandless died from lymphoma.
“My father was not prepared for her death,” Thompson said. “When she died he was so grief-stricken he didn’t know what to do.”
Although friends brought food to Wandless’ home, he found himself especially comforted by the solace brought by several Roman Catholic priests. “He said the priests were the ones who offered him the most hope,” Thompson said.
“He decided that being a priest was something he wanted to do, to give that hope and comfort to others.”
Many widowed men, especially in recent years, have become Catholic priests through a process that requires the blessing of local church authorities.
“Dad went to the bishop and told him that this would be a good deal for both them and him,” Thompson said. His two children were grown, he said, and his software business had given him financial independence.
With the approval of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Wandless began studying for the priesthood. He was ordained a priest not long after receiving his master’s of divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., in 1997.
He served in several diocesan churches before being assigned to St. Louis Parish, 5930 Swope Parkway.
During the 1960s Wandless had been a foot soldier in the federal government’s War on Poverty, working for the Office of Economic Opportunity in Kansas City. Decades later, at his southeast Kansas City parish, he encountered young men with little economic opportunity in their own neighborhood.
In 2005 Wandless founded and funded the Urban Ranger Corps. The summer program enrolled young men ages 14 through 18 and taught them home repair and painting skills. For many, it was their first paying job.
The corps emphasized punctuality, respectful speech and patriotism. Rangers wore matching t-shirts, attended morning flag-raising ceremonies and participated in marching drills.
“Dad loved the military,” Thompson said. “Our family had its own flag-raising ceremony every Fourth of July.”
Wandless later retired as a priest but the Urban Ranger Corps continued. Since its founding the program has served more than 500 young men. During the 2014-2015 school year, rangers completed more than 1,000 volunteer hours across the Kansas City metro area.
Wandless retired as organization president in 2012. The following year the corps expanded its model to include boys entering the seventh and eighth grades. Currently 107 young men ages 12 to 18 are enrolled.
All rangers in their final year of high school have graduated on time, according to corps administrators.
“I honestly don’t know where I would be without the program,” said Robert Days, who enrolled with the corps in 2007 at age 15.
Days, who graduated this year from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and today works as a retail sales consultant for AT&T, served as a ranger corps mentor and team leader this past summer.
“It was my first job, and being able to make money at that age helped prepare me for life,” Days said.
Wandless’ program served as a portal through which young men without opportunity gained access to it, said the Rev. Charles Rowe, Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese vicar general.
“John embraced people who were at the margins, the poor and the underprivileged,” Rowe said.
“He took seriously Christ’s call to reach out to folks in need. His work with the Urban Rangers was the most visible expression of his solicitude for those down and out — giving them a hand up so they can stand up on their own.”