|With Dad on graduation day|
On this Father’s Day, having recently visited my alma mater for Reunion Weekend 2018, I reflect on three of Dad’s favorite topics, in reverse order…
Like Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, Notre Dame likes to amp things up to 11.
This is engrained in the school’s DNA. After a fire destroyed the campus’ main building in 1879, Notre Dame’s founder, Holy Cross Fr. Edward Sorin, walked through the ruins, gathered students into the church next door and put the blame on himself for not dreaming big enough.
“I came here to build a great university to honor Our Lady,” he said. “But I built it too small, and She had to burn it to the ground to make the point.”
This is how the present-day Golden Dome was born. It is the still the centerpiece of the campus, and still gives chills to anyone turning the corner on Notre Dame Avenue to see it gleam a mile away in the distance. The sight impresses visitors, and welcomes alumni home.
But it’s a very different home than I remember. In 2018, one overheard first impression of campus was, “It’s like a golf course with a starburst of buildings.”
The comment brought to mind the image of myself, standing next to my young daughter on a visit here nearly a decade ago. She took in the sweeping expanse green fields outlined by new dorms and academic buildings of Collegiate Gothic design, distinctively colored by Sorin Brick made from lime-rich marl, a mud that lines the campus’ two lakes.
“Dad, you went to school here?” My young daughter asked, with a touch of awe Fr. Sorin would have delighted in.
“I went to school HERE?” I found myself repeating, with a touch of wonder. The entire quad she was looking at didn’t exist when I went to school at Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe it either.
By 2018, the campus had expanded even further. The new law building housed an entire courtroom, suitable for full-scale mock trials. The new performance arts center was built around not one, but seven stages. The new science building encases an entire planetarium.
A new football stadium was build around the old stadium... and then, as part of a $400 million development project, geo-thermal wells were installed beneath the parking lots and even the surrounding stadium was surrounded itself by four new, adjoining buildings, including a student center with a rock-climbing wall and a two-story ballroom overlooking the 50-yard line.
It’s as if Notre Dame cocoons itself every few years, and then explodes into something bigger and brighter.
Bigger, brighter, bolder. This is, after all, Indiana, the heart of America.
The Reunion Weekend included a reception in one of the football stadium’s new concourses. It was, quite literally, an open bar the size of a football field.
|It is Catholic; I renewed my marriage vows here.|
Consider the scene: strobe lighting, DJs and dance floors at both entrances, a sea of people drinking heavily. Tables upon tables of free food and drink. Blue-shirted workers hustle dirty dishes and try to keep the common areas clean. At one long table, dozens of plastic cups are lined up for an epic, recently abandoned, game of beer pong.
I am approached by a member of the cleanup crew. He seems upset, and he thinks — because of my age or sports coat or skin color — that somehow I am in charge of all this.
“This is not right,” he says to me earnestly, in a thickly accented voice. “This is a Catholic college.” He pointed to the beer pong table and to trays of hardly eaten food. “Too much,” he says. “Too much beer.”
He asks me to let the other organizers know his feelings. I agree to pass his comments along, transcribing his email address from a cracked phone screen.
I consider the maids and janitors in the dorms; the people who drove the golf carts and shuttle vans to transport alumni around the sprawling campus; all the workers at the two large dining halls; the gardening, maintenance and construction crews who were working in the hot sun that day; the salespeople at the bookstore; the ushers at the arts center; the grounds crew personnel at the stadium, and the temporary help they employed to stand guard at all the entrances to the football field.
All these people — the people at the party and the people cleaning up after the party — are part of what this university has become. It reflects the heart of America today. We aren’t necessarily divided by purpose, but we are still divided by race and age and gender and economic means. Even at a Catholic college.
Which brings me to God. Here’s a joke I overheard not once but twice during my weekend visit regarding Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the university’s legendary president from 1962 to 1987 who passed away in 2015:
Q. What’s the difference between God and Fr. Ted?
A. God is everywhere. Fr. Ted is everywhere, except Notre Dame.
Fr. Ted traveled far and wide in pursuit of social justice missions and the greater glory of Norte Dame. He embodied the bigger-than-life spirit of Fr. Sorin.
He struck up friendships with popes and presidents. President Carter appointed him to the U.N. Conference of Science and Technology, to a commission to create the Holocaust Museum and to the Select Commssion for Immigration and Refugee Policy Reform.
In return for his services, airplane-loving Fr. Ted asked for a ride on an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane in the world. When the president balked at letting a civilian do so, Fr. Ted barked: “I thought you were Commander-in-Chief!”
That’s how, on the last day of February 1979, Fr. Ted traveled 2,200 miles an hour in a top-secret airplane, setting a still-held record for the fastest any non-astronaut has ever flown.
|Fr. Ted's library|
Fr. Ted’s library, with the iconic “Touchdown Jesus” mural, was the tallest building between Detroit and Chicago when opened in 1963, filled with more than 3 million books – half of which are now archived in another location due to the changing nature of libraries.
Fr. Ted insisted on infusing his university with a diversity of thought despite, or because of, its Catholic roots… which he always took pride in. To this day, there’s a crucifix in every classroom, although at a lecture I attended in the new DeBartolo Hall, it seemed to be hidden behind tech equipment.
His leadership in social justice issues was his ultimate claim to fame. I was reminded of this while wandering through the former student center, the one without the rock-climbing wall. The LaFortune building now houses what’s purported to be the nation’s highest grossing Subway fast-food franchise. In the center hall between its two wings there’s a large, impressive black-and-white portrait of Fr. Ted linked arm-in-arm with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1964.
I was in LaFortune accompanied by my wife because I wanted to show her the offices of The Observer, the daily student newspaper where I had happily volunteered countless hours as an undergraduate. However, I learned that The Observer, in a metaphor for print journalism itself these days, now occupies part of the basement in the South Dining Hall.
I told my wife that Kathy, my best friend on The Observer staff, used to put laundry soap in the fountain next door to LaFortune. She just liked to watch the bubbles. But that the fountain no longer exists.
Then I tried to show my wife the hidden sculpture garden that Kathy and I once stumbled across in a remote area of campus behind Holy Cross Hall. But the sculpture garden no longer exists either.
Beyond this, around a bend, I assured my wife, there was a cemetery.
It was getting late, nearly 9 p.m., and our home for the weekend was a dorm on the other side of campus. The dorm didn’t exist when I went to school there, and the naming rights were purchased by a classmate of mine. Still, my wife humored me because, with South Bend on Eastern time, it seemed to be the land of the midnight sun, and sunset was nowhere in sight.
|Fr. Ted's grave|
The cemetery I explored with Kathy decades ago was still there. It was filled with small cross headstones in neat rows. Years ago, I had simply assumed they were veterans’ graves.
No, my wife said, reading the markers in 2018, these are graves of all the brothers and priests who had lived and worked at Notre Dame. They are buried in chronological order… one right after the other, with no marker more distinct than the next, speaking to the perspective of those who offered their lives to be part of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
That made it was easy for us to find Fr. Ted Hesburgh’s grave. It was here, in a remote Indiana cemetery, marked with the same stone as all his brothers.
Everyone buried there had done his part, lived and died, to the best of his talents, for a higher purpose than individual glory.
Fr. Ted was bigger than life… just like his legacy, the Notre Dame campus, still is today. But the message I learned in my time travel to this small cemetery after so many years is that no one is bigger than death. No person is more important than another; everyone contributes to everything.
God, I believe, is the only judge of our lives. Only the passage of time reveals the true import our efforts. Our biggest heroes are buried in the most modest graves.