Posted Online: June 13, 2009, 12:00 am

Peace channeling priest turns radio villain's dial

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By Leon Lagerstam, leon@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Rev. William 'Digger' Dawson marks his 55th anniversary of ordination. He's been a leading peace proponent for the duration of his ministerial career.
DAVENPORT -- His nickname belonged to a radio-show villain from the 1930s, but the Rev. William ''Digger'' Dawson has dedicated his life to peace.

Rev. Dawson, 81, celebrated his 55th anniversary of his ordination earlier this month, and again was saluted for his ''commitment to social and economic justice, and the promotion and advancement of human rights,'' according to a St. Ambrose University press release.

A crate-full of earlier stories he sorted through documented his lifelong passion for peace, and noted how, as many things have changed, some have stayed the same in the 55 years he's been a priest.

When he was a kid, some boyhood friends nicknamed him ''Digger,'' after listening to a radio show titled ''The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen.''

A villain in the show named ''Digger Dawson'' spent his time always wanting to blow up Jimmie Allen's airplane, Rev. Dawson said.

Jimmie, a boy-wonder pilot, and his teenage buddy, Speed Robertson, and mechanic Flash Lewis, always foiled the criminal plans of Digger Dawson and an infamous character named Black Pete.

The show ended in 1947, but Rev. Dawson's nickname stuck around, as has his devotion for a peaceful, non-violent world, and for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

He was 17 when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in World War II.

''But I'm confident we'll never do something like that ever again, and that the world will never see that happen again,'' Rev. Dawson said.

Yet, he also recalled President Dwight Eisenhower once saying no one should ever get involved in a war halfway across the world, and that it was hard to see any interest, reason or benefit for doing so.

''I saw that to be true in the case of Vietnam,'' Rev. Dawson said, adding the same can be said about Iraq and Afghanistan.

He strongly favors serious reductions of U.S. nuclear-weapon stockpiles ''to set an example for the world,'' he said. ''We have reduced the numbers of them, but our capabilities remain awesome, dangerous and unfortunate.''

He's afraid too many people ''want it this way,'' especially in the wake of 9/11, and the reluctance of many people who ''perceive it would be giving up our advantage,'' Rev. Dawson said. ''It's about an idea that we would be able to protect the world with our arsenal, but it's not working that way. Our arsenal is creating antagonism around the world.''

He believes the Catholic church needs to do a better job of stressing peace and non-violence as a way to also overcome attendance declines, sex-abuse controversies and priest shortages.

The church also needs to become more democratic and less hierarchal, in terms of letting parishioners vote on issues including Bishop and priest selections.

The church has changed a lot already in the years he's been a priest.

The language has changed from Latin to English, and the ''theology has become more contemporary, up-to-date and attuned to the times,'' Rev. Dawson said. ''I feel I've changed with the church, and hope I've been a part of those advancements.''

Yet, he feels it's time for the church to make provisions for married and women priests, and review the clergy celibacy requirement to address the ever-growing shortage of priests, something he calls tragically sad because it means sacraments are being denied to a lot of people.

Church attendance is down because of the shortage, and because of the sexual-abuse controversy, ''but surprisingly, it isn't down further than it is.'' he said.

Yet, it's reported that 30 million Catholics are inactive, Rev. Dawson said, adding that if that many people formed a church, it would be larger than all other denominations combined.

Rev. Dawson plans to continue his call for peace and non-violence and to keep ''digging'' into ways to draw those missing Catholics back to the fold.

What else would you expect from a good ''Digger?'' Rev. William 'Digger' Dawson Address: Davenport

Birth date: Oct. 25, 1927

Hometown: Ottumwa, Iowa

Favorite Scripture: Matthew 5-8, ''The Sermon on the Mount.''

Favorite Biblical character I'd like to meet: ''Jesus first, Mary second.''

Hobbies: ''Reading, golf.''

One thing I feel strongly about: ''My teaching and writing centered on non-violence and trying to create a non-violent world and eliminate violence and nuclear weapon.''