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Wednesday, Jan 16, 2019
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Obituaries of Note

Rebellious Jesuit John Kaack, who forged lifelong relationships with students, dead at 73

TAMPA — John Kaack was known to curse in public and enjoy a beer.

At sporting events, when calls didn’t go his team’s way, his was among the loudest voices in the crowd, often with harsh words for the referee.

Kaack was also a Jesuit priest who, in part through his rebellious streak, forged lifelong relationships with Jesuit High School students.

"He loved football and he would curse like a sailor," Victor DiMaio, Jesuit class of 1972, said with a laugh. "So, he was able to transcend his role as a disciplinarian priest and become a very real human who connected with everyone in a positive and trusting way. He will be missed."

Friends found Kaack dead in his home on Jan. 6, the Tampa Police Department said, and had not heard from him since Dec. 29.

The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office said Kaack, 73, died of heart disease.

"Right now, they are yelling ‘Kaack’ in the halls of heaven," said Marc Maseman, Jesuit class of 1991.

"Kaack" and not "Father" is how former students refer to him, like the buddy he was to them, they said.

"When you would walk across campus between classes, people would shout his name out," said Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, who attended Jesuit for his freshman and sophomore years.

"It was a thing to yell, ‘Kaack,’ or, ‘Kaack-a-doodle-doo,’ and he would smile, pretend to ignore it and keep walking."

But watching the field of play, Kaack ignored nothing.

"In the huddle at football, you couldn’t hear a single thing but his voice," Maseman said. "He’d never stop yelling, ‘Go Blue.’"

Among Kaack’s extracurricular duties at Jesuit was to head the theatrical Masque Club.

Rick Fernandez, class of 1972, said the priest’s choices of shows reflected his rebellious nature.

"My senior year we did the Trial of the Catonsville Nine," Fernandez said. "The idea that Jesuit would put on an anti-Vietnam War play in the spring of 1972, looking back, I can’t believe it happened. And from an educational experience, it opened my eyes to a new world perspective."

John Biemer, class of 1991 and a former Chicago Tribune reporter, wrote in a Facebook post that Kaack’s passion for literature inspired him.

"He gave dramatic readings of Huckleberry Finn in which he nailed the accents of Huck and Jim," Biemer wrote, adding that Kaack also "dished out ‘your mother’ jokes with the best of them."

Still, Kaack was known as one of the school’s strictest disciplinarians.

Tony Garcia, class of 1973, recalled when he was kicked out of the Masque Club after showing up late for rehearsals.

"He warned us if we were late three times we were gone," Garcia said. "It was one of the first instances I learned actions have consequences."

Born in New Haven, Conn., and raised in Baton Rouge, La., Kaack entered the Jesuits in 1963, said Jesuit High School spokesman Pete Young. Kaack taught at the Jesuit High three times — 1969-1971, 1976-1979 and 1984-1999.

He served from 1979-982 as principal of Jesuit High School in New Orleans and finished his career teaching at Jefferson High School in Tampa from 1999-2017, continuing to do pastoral work at St. Lawrence Church through 2003.

"He was well-liked by all the students," Jefferson principal Robert Quinn said. "He was a great personality."

According to former students, Kaack seemed to remember them all, even if they hadn’t seen one another for years. And if asked, he would counsel them at their home or even over a beer if that is what made them most comfortable.

"He was a realist who worked to understand each person’s beliefs rather than focusing only on the doctrine of the church," said Maseman, class of 1991. "He was a teacher. He was a chaplain. He was a mentor. He was a friend."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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