The gift of a Catholic education

  • Written by Kevin Birnbaum
  • Published in NW Stories
Joseph Weller. Photo: Stephen Brashear Joseph Weller. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Joseph Weller will continue supporting Catholic school students even after he’s gone

For more than 75 years, Joseph Weller has cherished a small, ivory-colored statue of Jesus — even now, it is displayed in his living room, nestled among photos and seashells atop an antique phonograph. The statue was a gift from his seventh-grade teacher, Sister Stanislaus, one of the black-and-white-habited Ursuline nuns who taught him and his classmates in the class of 1940 at Immaculate Conception School in Everett.

Sister Stanislaus was Weller’s favorite, but the nuns were all good teachers, he said. “Boy, they were disciplinarians, but they were great to you too,” he said. “They were really loving.”

A student who talked out of turn or misbehaved in Mass would get the classic ruler to the hands, he said, but the sisters’ softer side shone through at recess. “They’d go out and play ball with you, even in their habits.”

Weller has many such fond memories of his schoolboy days at Immaculate — serving early-morning Mass followed by breakfast in the rectory, singing Latin in the boys’ choir led by Father William Fitzgerald. “He’d play the organ, we’d sing,” Weller said. “It was not a great choir.”

A great education

The school is part of his family’s DNA. His sister was a first-grader when the school opened in 1924, and his three older brothers went there too. When Weller and his wife DeDe had their own children — four sons and two daughters — they sent them all to Immaculate.

A lot has changed at the school since Weller graduated from eighth grade 75 years ago — no more nuns on the teaching staff, for starters. And in 1987, Immaculate Conception merged with nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help. (“There was a lot of rivalry between the two schools at the time when I went through,” Weller recalled.)

Tuition has also increased a bit from the dollar a month or so that Catholic elementary schools charged in the ’30s (if they charged tuition at all). These days, a year at IC/OLPH runs well over $5,000. About a quarter of the school’s 250 students receive tuition assistance, said Principal Kimberlie Kilroy. But still, Weller said, “There’s a lot of children that cannot go to Immaculate because it’s expensive.”

That’s why he recently established a large endowment fund to provide scholarships for IC/OLPH students (he requested that the dollar amount be kept private). “I had a great education there, and I’m still impressed with the children that are there now, and I just wanted to do something for the school,” he explained modestly.

Class of 1940 pictureJoseph Weller, left, and his classmates in the class of 1940 at Immaculate Conception School in Everett.

A Depression-era childhood

Weller has always known the value both of a Catholic school education — “I just think it’s really important that children get religion,” he said — and of a dollar. He was born in 1926, so his childhood coincided with the Great Depression. His father owned a restaurant, Weller & Berry, but lost it during those years. “We had tough times,” Weller said.

Like his brothers, young Joe worked to help the family, walking a paper route for The Herald every day after school from the time he was 12. “It wasn’t a great deal, but what I did make I generally gave most of it to my parents,” he said.

A few days after graduating from Everett High School in 1944, Weller was drafted and “whooshed away to the Navy.” After a couple of years in the South Pacific, he returned home and enrolled at Everett Junior College. It was during a dance there that he met DeDe, the woman who would become his wife.

DeDe was a Protestant, but when Weller explained they’d have to be married in the Catholic Church, she agreed. One Sunday shortly before their wedding, she accompanied him to Mass, which wasn’t unusual. But this Sunday was different.

“She got up and was going to go to Communion,” Weller recalled, “and I said, ‘Honey, you can’t go to Communion — you’re not a Catholic.’ And she said, ‘Yes I am!’”

Unbeknownst to Weller, DeDe had been meeting with a priest to “take instruction,” and had become a Catholic. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said with a laugh. “She just wanted to surprise me.”

“And boy, she was a good Catholic too,” he added. “She was a better Catholic than I was.”

A lasting impact

DeDe died while undergoing knee surgery in 2000. “I took her into the hospital, gave her a big kiss on the gurney, and said, ‘I’ll see you in a couple of hours,’” Weller said. “Never saw her again.”

Losing his wife of 50 years was devastating, Weller said. But he knows she would be “a big backer” of his decision to use the fruits of his life’s work to support his alma mater.

As a young man, Weller decided to go into the hospitality industry. For many years he managed the Everett Elks Lodge, then the Everett Golf & Country Club, before following in his father’s footsteps and opening a restaurant, Weller’s Chalet in Arlington.

“Early on when we were in business, we talked about ‘Gee, if we ever make enough money, it would be nice to give some to the church someday,’” Weller said. They did, and now he is.

“I’ve always been thankful to my religion and to the school for the good things that the Lord has given me,” he said. “I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve gotten, but I’m lucky.”

So earlier this year he worked with IC/OLPH and the Fulcrum Foundation, which supports Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Seattle, to establish the Joseph and DeDe Weller and Family Scholarship Endowment Fund.

The Fulcrum Foundation manages endowment funds for 48 Catholic schools in Western Washington, totaling more than $40 million, said executive director Anthony Holter. He marvels at the selflessness and generosity of people like Weller who help make Catholic education possible for future generations.

“Here’s a man who has worked hard every single day for his entire life, and the fruits of that labor he wants to have some sort of lasting impact beyond him and his family,” Holter said. “This gift will give to kids for 100 years and more the great gift that he benefitted from and that meant so much to him and to his family.”