On this Veterans Day, I would like to pay tribute to a dear friend, a former longtime Focus on the Family board member, and a remarkable man who embodies the motto of the Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis – “Always faithful.”
Tony Wauterlek, now 85, served for five years as a captain in the United States Marine Corps. A pilot with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, he flew jet fighters between 1960 and 1965.
It might surprise you to learn that until Tony signed up to serve following his graduation from the University of Illinois, he had never flown in an airplane.
Growing up just a mile east of Midway Airport in Chicago, Tony and his friends would often make their way to the outskirts of the field and hang on the fence, watching the planes take off and land. It was magical for a city boy whose father had fled the Russian Revolution at the age of 17.
“I’d hardly trust my son to go get a newspaper down the corner,” Tony marveled. “And here my dad was fleeing the communists as a teenager – all alone.”
Tony’s father would meet his mother in Russia, and together they were able to emigrate to America, settling in the Windy City.
One of six children, four sisters and a brother, Tony’s father worked for 50 years for Chicago’s Northern Trust Bank. He was a loving dad, but with his Eastern European work ethic, he didn’t suffer fools lightly. He discouraged Tony and his siblings from wasting time with sports and other unproductive hobbies. Nevertheless, Tony played baseball, hockey and football. He satisfied his industrious-minded father by simultaneously taking a paper route when he was just 8.
The Wauterleks had no car, so in order to get to their independent evangelical church, Tony and his family first took a streetcar and then a bus. If the doors were open – Sunday morning and evening, along with Wednesday nights – they were there. Given the predominantly Russian heritage of the congregation, church served as something of an extended family. Worshipping, learning and socializing in that particular church would instill in the young boy qualities and characteristics that would follow him all of his life.
Facing the prospect of being drafted following graduation, Tony signed up with the Marines in June of 1960 and was in flight school by September.
So, why fighter jets?
“A Marine saw I was a cocky, young guy and invited me,” he recalled from his Florida home. “That was all I needed.”
First trained in a T-34, Tony was flying solo by his 11th hour. He graduated after 30 hours. Training at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, Marine pilots practiced landing in a field that was set up to simulate the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. When it was finally time to land on a real carrier, the pilots were directed to land on the USS Antietam.
“I got up there, and I saw this little speck down below,” Tony remembered. “I remember saying out loud, ‘There’s no way I can get down on that!’”
But he did.
Out of a class of 800, he was one of just seven selected for a special squadron and excelled in his role. A senior officer then pulled him aside and invited him to join the astronaut program. At the time, prospects were being recruited for the Mercury and Apollo programs.
“I had never even been in a plane before joining the Marines, and here I was being given the opportunity to go to the moon and outer space,” Tony laughed. One of his fellow classmates would eventually make it to the lunar surface.
Ultimately, Tony declined. It was an easy decision. Newly married to Kathryn, and with a child on the way, Tony’s commitment would have skyrocketed (no pun intended) from five years to twenty. He and Kathryn would have two children, Anthony and Lisa. They now have three grandchildren.
Did Tony ever think of flying commercial after his service in the Marines?
“No. That would have been like driving a Lamborghini around a racetrack and then being told to drive a Greyhound Bus,” he laughed.
After being honorably discharged, Tony earned a master’s degree in finance. He and a friend then started a capital markets firm, buying and selling long-term debt or equity-backed securities. From the very beginning, they decided their reason for being was derived from Romans 12:11, and literally placed the verse above their door for all to see:
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
“We dedicated our business to the Lord and committed to tithing 10% off our gross,” Tony said. They gave generously to Christian organizations, and hosted Bible studies inside and outside their firm.
After selling their firm, Tony became very active in Christian service, serving as the co-chair of the Chicago Billy Graham Crusade and chairman of the board for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He also became one of Focus on the Family’s first board members, which is how we met. He became so sought after that he had to start turning down invitations. I’m glad he said “Yes” to Focus.
We pause on this Friday to honor all those who have served our nation. We owe these men and women a debt we’ll be unable to ever repay. If you or a loved one have served, please let us know in the comments section. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Tony Wauterlek’s service to the Lord began early in life and extended into the skies with the Marines – and then into the fields of finance and Christian philanthropy. Well done, Captain Wauterlek – and thank you for remaining faithful all these years.