Forever Friars: The Inspiring Story of Bill Jenks ’50

Fenwick High School periodically profiles people affiliated with our community who have since passed on.

Remembering the Spirit and Will of Bill Jenks

By Mark Vruno

To call William “Bill” Jenks ’50 (1932-1989) inspirational might be a gross understatement. But inspire he did and, through his preserved written words, still does nearly 30 years after his death. All of those words – hundreds of thousands of them and millions of characters – were typed on an electronic typewriter by Jenks, who was paralyzed and pecked at the keys using a wooden peg held tightly between his teeth. He wasn’t born without the use of his arms and legs, however.

Jenks grew up a healthy boy in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. In late 1943 the Jenks family moved to Park Ridge, on the northwest edge of the city, where Bill and John, his older brother, transferred to St. Paul of the Cross parish and school (Sisters of Mercy). In the autumn of ’46 Bill followed John to Fenwick High School on a merit scholarship. He began making the daily, 13-mile trek south to Oak Park with their father, Mack, who was a teacher at nearby Austin High, a Chicago Public School. Mack Jenks also was a retired U.S. Army Officer and taught military science to Junior ROTC students at Austin.

“We took Cumberland Avenue, and there was nothing but garden-type farming past Higgins Road in those days,” recalls John Jenks ’49, who now resides in Overland Park, KS.” Coming home in the evening, however, required streetcar (trolley)-to-bus transportation logistics. “The commute was about an hour at night,” remembers John, also noting that annual tuition was $125. “Fenwick was nothing but priests back then,” who were not paid salaries. “I remember the parents getting upset because school officials wanted to raise tuition to $150 one year,” laughs the elder Jenks brother, who went on to study at the University of Michigan and enjoyed a long corporate career at Bell and Howell.

Bill, the younger Jenks, is pictured as a member of the National Honor Society in the 1950 Blackfriars Yearbook. “He was an excellent student,” recalls classmate Father Richard “Dick” LaPata, O.P., former president of Fenwick, who also remembers Bill Jenks as being a mature young man. “Bill was very well regarded by the members of our class.”

Jenks went east to continue his studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, to where he had received a Navy ROTC scholarship — and decided to go by the name “Will” in lieu of Bill. (“God knows why!” exclaims his brother.) “He spent the summer after his first year as a midshipman crisscrossing the Atlantic,” wrote Allison Chisolm in a 2004 article for Holy Cross Magazine. Aboard ship, Will Jenks traveled to such ports as Lisbon, Portugal, and Guantanamo Bay (GTMO), Cuba. “Shortly after his return, his family moved to Dana, IN, where his father owned a 260-acre farm,” she recounts. Their great-grandfather had bought the land in Indiana, John adds. Situated some 170 miles south of Chicago, he, Bill and younger brother Jim used to spend summers there. “That farm has been in our family since 1836,” he says. The Jenks family – father (Mack), mother (Ella) and their three sons – moved to the Indiana farm when “our dad retired from teaching in 1951.”

However, Will Jenks’ physical stay in at the Jesuit, liberal-arts school in Massachusetts was brief. In fact, he would never return to Holy Cross as a student. When his shipboard duty on the USS Shannon was finished, “Bill had a kidney-stone attack when he came home and ended up in St. Francis Hospital in Evanston,” his older brother remembers. Then in late August of 1951, back in sleepy, small-town Indiana, “Jenks spent two hours playing basketball” with some townies, according to the college magazine account. “He came home hot and tired and suffering from a headache. By the next morning, he couldn’t move one of his arms. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with polio.”

The Poliomyelitis Epidemic

Poliomyelitis, often called polio or infantile paralysis, is an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus. In 1921 the debilitating disease had claimed 39-year-old New York politician Franklin D. Roosevelt, who went on to become the 32nd President of the United States despite losing the use of both legs. When Will Jenks was infected with the virus 30 years later, Dr. Jonas Salk’s “miracle” vaccine still would be in development for four more years, which was “too late for Bill,” John laments. Many people under the age of about 70 may not remember or even be aware, but until 1955 polio was considered one of the most frightening public-health problems in the world.

In the post-World War II United States, annual polio epidemics were increasingly devastating. The ’52 epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation’s history: Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. Most of its victims were children. The “public reaction was to a plague,” said historian William L. O’Neill. “Citizens of urban areas were to be terrified every summer when this frightful visitor returned.” According to a 2009 PBS documentary, “Apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.”

There’s no way of knowing for sure, but Jenks “may have contracted the [polio] bug while at the hospital in Evanston,” his brother suspects. Once back on the farm, “we baled hay on Saturday, went for a swim and then went on a double-date. Bill seemed fine,” John says of the fateful weekend of August 25th 66 years ago. There was a heat wave, and “the temperature was about 105 degrees the next day, when he and Jim decided to play basketball. I stayed in the shade.” Later, they went to see a movie in town Sunday night, “but Bill didn’t feel like driving,” John recounts. At around 3 a.m. the next morning, their mother knew something was wrong and called the doctor, who said to get Bill to Union Hospital in Terre Haute, which was 25 miles away. “By the time we got him out to the car, his left arm was already gone,” says John, fighting back the tears of painful memories. “He lost his right arm at the hospital.”

Severe cases of polio are characterized by muscle weakness resulting in an inability to move. When the virus paralyzed muscle groups in the chest, many patients could not breathe on their own, so physicians prescribed a tank respirator, better known as an iron lung. Jenks was moved to a larger hospital in Indianapolis, where hundreds of polio victims were being treated. Over the next 12 months, he almost died and spent several stints in an iron lung, but the damage to the rest of his body was unrelenting: “… he came home, paralyzed from the neck down,” Holy Cross Magazine reported. Jenks was rendered a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair for the next 37 years of his earthly life.

“Fate left me poor; love made me rich. And that truth is worth proclaiming.”
– Will Jenks

Throughout Jenks’ prolonged hospital stay, “his former [Holy Cross] English professor, Father Patrick Cummings, S.J., wrote to him every day,” the magazine article continues. “The nurses would clip the letters to a mirror above his head so that he could read them, even while encased in an iron-lung machine,” John, recalls. Once Will returned home, “Fr. Cummings continued his correspondence, writing him every other day [for 18 years,] a total of more than 3,300 letters,” according to the college publication.

Later in life, Jenks would refer to those letters as a lifeline for a 20-year-old struggling with despair and self-pity; the dark hours of his wondering “why me?” They “led me out of the woods,” he admitted, “… always there was a word of counsel and encouragement to support me in the struggle for acceptance of God’s will. … Again and again he [Fr. Cummings] repeated, ‘All that God asks is that you don’t quit; the rest is His job.’” One of Father Pat’s go-to phrases was, “Keep the banner flying.” After the beloved priest’s death in 1969, Jenks’ spirit would lift upon hearing or reading that phrase.

Jenks, who had been a student reporter for The Wick at Fenwick for three years, heeded Fr. Cummings’ advice, learning how to type resourcefully on a typewriter by clenching a wooden clothespin between his teeth. Included among his prolific writings were weekly newspaper columns, freelance articles and at least 2,000 letters.

Will Jenks persisted and continued to overcome adversity. He controlled his wheelchair by blowing through a plastic tube. He sold plastic sheeting over the phone for a while, then used his unconventional typing skills to sign on with an organization called LIFT, Inc., where he trained as a computer programmer through a program to bring the severely disabled into the workplace. Jenks parlayed that experience into a gig at the Walgreens Pharmacy headquarters, where he helped set up an IT system enabling any store from across the country to disburse prescriptions regardless of the customer’s home base. He also counseled kids in his local parish, served on the parish council and served as the Holy Cross Class of ’54 secretary for 25 years.

Despite his physical challenges, Jenks was a valued Walgreens employee for some 10 years and remained quite the personable co-worker. “My brother always was a great listener and got along with everyone,” John says of the colleagues at Walgreens. “Bill was in his 40s at the time, and he was working with a bunch of young, 20-something programmers in the ’70s.” Will had received continual loving care from his aging mother but, when she could no longer handle him in rural Indiana, John modified his Mundelein, IL house and hired some local women to assist until dinnertime. Will was able to work from a home-office (set up “in his bedroom,” explains his brother). He would go into the programming operations office in Mount Prospect every Tuesday “for the camaraderie. For his birthday one year, they brought in a Greek belly-dancer to the cafeteria at Walgreens!” John relates with a laugh.

“All the Walgreens were Michigan men [alumni],” says John Jenks, speaking of his collegiate alma mater. “I always commended Corky [former company chairman Charles Walgreen, Jr.] for giving jobs to people with disabilities.” He added that he wished the firm he worked for at the time, Bell and Howell, was so progressive. High employee turnover rates frequently are associated with programmers, but qualified special-needs workers, “like Bill, can provide a sense of stability.”

“Let Yourself Be Loved”

In 1975, Holy Cross awarded Jenks with an honorary doctoral degree. The citation reads, in part: “Your battle was not to be with books and examinations, but with life itself, and you made the decision then to disregard the handicap and commit yourself to an involvement in human affairs that few able-bodied Holy Cross graduates can match.” At the Class of 1954’s 25th reunion, Jenks was persuaded to address some 1,200 alumni. Here is a snippet of what he called his “wheelchair wisdom:”

“A crippling disease is just one of fate’s ways of undercutting muscular love. The able-bodied can be brought to truth through hurts that never show. I think it’s likely that I am not the most seriously wounded among us, only the most conspicuously bandaged. Sooner or later every one of us will be made to feel flawed, inadequate, powerless. And there’s no defense against it … The alternative is to let yourself be loved. Not pitied, indulged or pampered, but loved.”

The Latin caritas translates in English to Christian love of humankind; charity. About Jenks, former Holy Cross Magazine editor Jack O’Connell, an alumnus from ’81, wrote: “… I have never heard anyone who impressed me more, moved me more and enlightened me more than Will Jenks. With humility, honor and passion, he delivered an endearing talk regarding the power of caritas to deliver all of us from selfishness, from ignorance and from despair…. In a concise 16 paragraphs, Will Jenks described lovingly how a community came together to embrace one man. And how that one man became a focal point for the best aspirations of that community.”

Will Jenks succumbed to carbon-dioxide narcosis (post-polio syndrome) on December 25th, 1989; he was 57 years old. “You know, he died on Christmas Day, and I think he went right to Heaven,” proclaims Fenwick classmate and 85-year-old Des Plaines, IL resident Bob Keenley ’50, who was a pallbearer at his dear friend’s funeral. Keenley, who graduated from Loyola University Chicago, had known Jenks since their grammar-school days at St. Paul’s in Park Ridge. “Bill was a great example of forgetting about yourself and giving so much to others,” he says fondly. “I visited him during those post-polio years. My children remember Uncle Bill. He was an amazing man. I called him ‘the confessor’ because he was a [problem] solver … he helped hundreds of people. I was invited to his 50th birthday party, and there must have been between 50 and 75 people there. I knew two.”

A year before Jenks’ death, an anonymous Holy Cross donor underwrote $1 million for the creation of the William Henry Peter Jenks Chair in Contemporary English Letters. It represented the largest single gift in the college’s history at the time. Fifteen years later, in 1994, the college dedicated a room in the Hogan Campus Center to Jenks’ memory.

William Kane, M.D., was a classmate of Jenks’ his freshman year who went on to become an esteemed orthopedic surgeon in Chicago and Minneapolis. The late doctor was so touched by his fellow Crusader and friend that, in the late ’90s, he embarked on a five-year research project culminating in the 2004 biography, Let Yourself Be Loved: The Life and Letters of Will Jenks. “I called him the sanest, saintliest and sagest man I ever knew,” said Dr. Kane, himself a survivor who fought his own bout with polio in 1949. “He [Will] would have sighed at such a string of alliterations.”

Bill and Basketball

When he was healthy, Bill Jenks possessed an athletic physique: over 6’ tall and close to 200 pounds. He loved playing basketball and was on the Friars’ varsity roster as a junior and senior, a hard-wood teammate of the versatile Johnny Lattner ’50 who led the team in scoring for four years and went on to Heisman-trophy football fame at the University of Notre Dame.

“My brother went out for football at Fenwick his freshmen year,” John Jenks recalls. “He told the story of how Coach [Tony] Lawless paired up the players and he got run over by John Lattner” John says, laughing. “After practice, Bill had to go across the street and get a Bromo-Seltzer because his head hurt so much. That was the end of his football career.”

Longtime friend Keenley remembers the youthful Bill as being “energetic, with lots of stamina. That’s why the disease was such a crushing blow to him.” On the basketball court, Bill Jenks claimed to be merely a bench-warming, reserve player for the Friars, but he was Lattner’s defensive foil at every basketball practice, according to his older brother. “He often kidded John that he taught him every basketball move he had!”

Apparently, practice made perfect. In the City Championship game of 1950, which in those days was played downtown at the old Chicago Stadium, Lattner was pitted against a much taller center. Public-league champion Tilden Tech’s Johnny “Red” Kerr had grown eight inches his senior year and towered at 6’9”. The South Side giant proved to be no rebounding match against the Friars’ West Side baller. As Fenwick Head Coach Bill Shay looked on, Lattner tenaciously out-muscled and out-positioned Kerr, who would become an All-American and enjoy a 12-year professional career in the NBA. (Many remember Red as a witty sports broadcaster.) The final score was indicative of a Chicago Catholic League “whipping:” Fenwick Friars 54, Tilden Blue Devils 41.

“Lattner ‘killed’ Kerr on the boards that night,” John Jenks recollects. Fellow Friar Tom Carstens ’51, who would follow Bill/Will Jenks to Holy Cross, says: “I can still see him cheering the year they won the City Championship,” those bright, blue eyes of Bill’s gleaming with pride.

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