Alumni Profile: Blandin ‘Bill’ Karabinos

Rachel (Vasilko) Heckman '13 | 11/29/2023

"My Life is a Miracle”

A tale of service to God and country 

Vietnam Orphans and Bird - Bill Karabinos
Fr. Blandin Karabinos enjoys a joyous moment with children at a Goo Vap orphanage when a bird landed on his finger.


As a young boy growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Blandin ‘Bill’ Karabinos would spend every summer and holiday at his grandparents’ home in Loretto. He would chat with the Franciscan TORs in his grandma’s kitchen, play basketball with Maurice Stokes in Doyle Hall, make friends with veterans attending college after their return from World War II, and eventually, attend the seminary and be ordained to the priesthood himself.

Once, while picking blackberries with one of his mentors, Fr. Vincent Burke, TOR, Bill first learned the French expression “noblesse oblige.” It means that it is the responsibility of the privileged to act with generosity and kindness toward those less privileged. Fr. Burke spoke with him about the importance of the phrase and would encourage him to put it into daily practice throughout his life.

Another of Bill’s early influences, Fr. Bede Hines, TOR, would also inspire him to learn and understand what is going on in the world and to do his part to make it a better place. “Any accomplishment in my life is based on guys like Fr. Vincent and Fr. Bede,” Bill said, describing the former as “brilliant” and the latter “a true Renaissance man.”

It was the connections he made and the lessons he learned in Loretto that would stick with Bill as he navigated the world as a priest, veteran, layman, husband, father, and friend.

 

“For God and Country”

During a 1952 camping trip with his Boy Scout troop, Bill’s scoutmaster would tell them the story of Fr. Emil Kapaun – “the priest who was a thief.” He was a United States Army captain and chaplain who served in the Burma theater in World War II and then again in the Korean War before dying in a POW camp in North Korea. As his battalion was overwhelmed by the advancing Chinese army, he remained behind with the wounded and was captured. While in the camp, Fr. Emil would steal food and medicine for his fellow soldiers, being beaten and brutalized each time the guards caught him. After he recovered from his injuries, he continued to scrounge and steal again and again until his death in 1951.  

After listening to the campfire story that night, the harrowing and inspiring tale of Fr. Emil planted the seed of Bill’s vocation to the priesthood and his desire to serve in the military. A few years later, following his graduation from Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, Bill returned to Loretto permanently to join the Franciscan community and took the religious name Blandin. He studied philosophy at St. Francis College and attended Our Lady of Loretto Seminary. On May 23, 1964, 13 years to the day of Fr. Emil’s death in a North Korean POW camp, Bill was ordained to the priesthood as Fr. Blandin, TOR.

For the next seven years, Fr. Blandin did parish work, taught at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg, served as a full-time hospital chaplain, and preached the gospel. However, in 1970, when the United States began to send troops into Vietnam, he received permission from the order to join the military. Fr. Blandin, still excited by the story of the “priest thief,” also remembered the motto of his old high school, “Pro Deo et Patria.”

“The motto means ‘For God and Country,’” Bill said. “So, when war broke out in Vietnam, I thought, this is my chance. I wanted to serve my part as a chaplain.”

A year after he enlisted, Fr. Blandin was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry, a field combat unit that would orchestrate attacks against the enemy and defend friendly-fire bases, villages, and the city of Saigon. Known as the legendary Blackhorse Regiment, the men and machines were always in the field – exactly where Fr. Blandin wanted to be.

“It was a real band of brothers like you see in the movies,” Bill said. “You just can’t leave these guys.”

Despite the horrors of war that they witnessed every day in Vietnam, Fr. Blandin’s regiment would find joy in visits to the local orphanages, taking extra supplies and rations for the children.

“They would smile at you always,” Bill said. “They were joyous times.”

Fr. Blandin served in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972 and stayed in the army for three years until the war ended. Mirroring the dedicated service of Fr. Emil Kapaun, he remained in the field with the troops of the Black Horse regiment wherever they had to go, but he never felt like he lived up to the standard Fr. Emil had set. Forty years after his service, however, his former commanding officer would name him a “Muddy Boots” chaplain, a title he describes as one of the highest honors he could ever receive.

Following his return from the war, Fr. Blandin was sent to the Franciscan University of Steubenville to do some fundraising work there, but he soon met a beautiful nurse and fell in love. He was granted a leave of absence in 1975 and later a dispensation from vows. That same year, Bill married Mary Sharon Grover at St. Jude Catholic Church in Atlanta, GA. Their son Michael was born in 1977.

Thanks to his prior military service, Bill got a job as a field revenue officer with the U.S. Treasury Department in Atlanta. He also used his G.I. Bill benefits to earn a master’s degree in government administration. When he got a promotion in 1980, he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he continued his work with the IRS. He was one of 14 people on the 1984 task force that developed the electronic filing system, and at the Office of the Chief Counsel, he created an American Bar Association-approved honors program for government attorneys. In 1992, Bill was named National Office Analyst of the Year. Seven years later, he retired and moved to Williamsburg, VA.

Although he did not remain a priest for long after his return from Vietnam, Bill’s faith remained, and he continued to serve the Catholic Church in any way he could. While a parishioner of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, he wrote for the diocesan newspaper, chaired the adult education program, and was on various parish committees.

From the time he was a young boy visiting his grandparents in Loretto, it was instilled in him the desire to do his small part to change the world for the better, and throughout his secular life, he would find ways to do so. While serving as a scout leader for his son’s Boy Scout troop in the 1980s, he worked with Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger to create a program for scouts with disabilities in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. In the years following, the program would be replicated in Boy Scout troops across the country.

“I Live a Life of Miracles”

In March of 2021, Bill learned that the remains of Fr. Emil Kapun had been identified and would be brought back to his hometown in Kansas for burial. Nearly 70 years after the priest thief’s death, and 50 years after Bill’s own service as an army chaplain, he would be there to participate in the procession that would bring his boyhood idol home to rest.

In his book “The Fioretti of the Loretto Franciscans: Book 4,” Bill writes, “It is a story that still excites me, even as my bones grow weary from celebrating life too much.”

Just like Fr. Emil stayed with and cared for the troops in his battalion even as a POW, Bill also never abandoned the men of his regiment either. He continues to act as the chaplain for the 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia, but now, instead of being in the field, he spends his time speaking with other members of the organization regularly, writing condolences to the families of veterans who have passed away, and conducting memorial services for his brothers who have fallen.

“For years, I have spoken monthly with some of the guys,” Bill said. “They loved their chaplain, and I loved those guys.”

Not only has he kept in touch with his fellow veterans, but he has also remained very close to his former Franciscan brothers in Loretto. He continues to visit several times a year and always returns to attend funeral masses for those TORs who have passed away.

“Loretto is like a magnet for me,” Bill said. “I can’t imagine my life without Loretto.”

In October 2022, Bill was honored as an Affiliate Member of the Franciscan Friars for his service and support of their mission for over 70 years. An honor he says was one of the greatest of his lifetime.

 

“Life is good to me, and I say that my life is a miracle,” Bill said. “Every day is a miracle.”

 


Scholarship Opportunity

Beginning in Fall 2023, Saint Francis University has partnered with the 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia (ACVVC)  to match up to 50 scholarships, ranging from $3,000 to $5,000, that are awarded by the organization each year. Recipients who attend Saint Francis will be able to receive a matching scholarship amount awarded by the University. To be eligible, students must be the child or grandchild of any ACVVC member and must maintain a GPA of 3.0. Since the start of the scholarship program, the ACVVC has awarded a total of $2.4 million to eligible students.