Monsignor Wayne Ressler was a man of faith and sports, and those two aspects of his life often intermingled in interesting ways.
The Cascade native died from heart issues Aug. 21 at the age of 80. But he leaves behind the legacy of a man who was committed both on the field and behind the pulpit.
“He was very energetic and full of energy,” said the Rev. Mark Ressler, Wayne’s brother. “He could be approached by anybody, and a lot of people looked up to him.”
From an early age, Wayne made a name for himself in his hometown, where he was a star player in both baseball and basketball. In the latter sport, he averaged more than 30 points per game while playing at St. Martin’s High School. From 1954-57, he scored 1,771 points for the team.
He eventually was inducted into the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Gary Dolphin, a friend of Wayne’s, remembers seeing him play on the field in Cascade and witnessing what Dolphin described as a devastating combination of speed and endurance.
“Wayne was a superstar, pure athleticism,” Dolphin said. “He could run down any fly ball better than anyone I ever saw in this area.”
To an outside observer, it could seem that sports were Wayne’s life. But when put to the test, it was his faith that always came first.
In high school, he was asked to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds organization, an opportunity of a lifetime that could have launched a career in sports. Instead, he turned the Reds down to pursue an entirely different profession.
Wayne wanted to be a priest.
“He felt that God was calling him to the priesthood,” Mark Ressler said. “He knew what he wanted to do.”
So Wayne packed his bags and left his hometown of Cascade — not for Cincinnati, but for Dubuque, where he would attend Loras College.
His sports career didn’t end in Cascade, though. He joined the Loras College Duhawks baseball team, where he started all four years and led the team in hitting for two of them.
After completing his seminary training in Italy, where he was ordained in St. Peter’s Basilica, Wayne returned to Dubuque. He eventually took a job teaching at Wahlert High School and served as assistant principal for five years.
“He did a great job with the schools and the community,” said the Rev. John McClean, a retired priest and friend of Wayne’s. “You could say he was an educational leader and a community leader.”
While he spent two decades working in Catholic schools, many in Dubuque will remember Wayne from his sermons at Dubuque parishes. For the last 25 years of his career, he preached at St. Raphael’s Cathedral, Nativity Parish and St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church.
Throughout his career, Wayne was one of the more popular priests in the area, McClean said, largely due to his extroverted personality.
Open and accepting of everyone who came before him, Wayne would often greet people with a joke and a smile that saw his lip curl up higher on the right side than the left.
Even years into his career as a priest, Wayne never lost his love of sports. He often played in local softball leagues and refereed games.
When he wasn’t playing, Wayne could be found cheering on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish college football team or the Chicago Cubs.
On many occasions, his passion for faith and athletics would meld together and allow him to reach people in unique ways.
“Sports was a way of getting into people’s lives and talking about Christ,” Mark Ressler said. “It helped him relate with people and connect with them.”
Wayne spent the final years of his life at Stonehill Care Center in Dubuque, where he served as “anointing priest” for residents and golfed when he could.
Even in his final years, Wayne never lost his wit or passion for the things he loved. He prayed often, and when he couldn’t golf anymore, he still liked to join friends on outings and ride along.
On those trips, he would tell some jokes and talk about sports and his childhood in Cascade.
“He was a very compassionate person,” Mark Ressler said. “I think that’s what people will remember him for.”