It was about 10 a.m. on Tuesday, November 30, 2004. I was at a meeting on the 5th floor of Grace Hall, when my cell phone came to life. On the other end of the line was then-Provost Nathan Hatch, asking, “How soon can you extricate yourself from whatever you’re doing and come over here?”
As I walked across the Notre Dame campus to the Main Building, I had a hunch, based on a casual conversation with Father Jenkins, president-elect, a few weeks earlier, plus the debacle in Los Angeles vs. USC the previous weekend, that this might concern Coach Tyrone Willingham’s tenure. Within seconds of entering the meeting, I knew my instincts had been correct. As I heard the decision I felt some concern but mostly a ripple of excitement, knowing that this would be a professional challenge. Later, some of the more depressing realities set in.
That was the beginning of a two-week public relations crisis, some would say disaster, for the University of Notre Dame, and, lucky me, I was the University spokesman.
The pros and cons of that decision and the way it was handled, have been hashed over countless times since then. I can only say it was a kind of “perfect storm,” combining an eight-year period of football mediocrity, a rare presidential transition at Notre Dame, decades of American and collegiate racial history, and the intense media scrutiny the University always attracts.
I had been, for 38 years, on the other side of that media scrutiny. I was a reporter in Washington and Asia for eight years and spent another 30 years as an editor at several publications, finally serving eight years as editor of The Boston Globe. I know what makes news and how fame and conflict are dynamic accelerants for the media, especially if there’s the added allure of taking a mighty icon down a peg.
In July 2001, at age 58, I announced my retirement as editor of the Globe. To my surprise, Notre Dame came calling. Lou Nanni ‘84, ’88M.A., then vice president for public affairs and communication, flew out and asked me to take the job of associate vice president for news and information. I turned him down. I was going to remain in the Boston area, planning on a second career that would not be quite as time-consuming and intense as the first one. But after all those years of throwing myself into something I really loved, I found it hard to generate enthusiasm for other jobs.
A job to love?
My conversation with Lou had taken place less than a month before 9/11. Toward the end of 2001, I was reading one of the poignant “Portraits of Grief” in The New York Times on victims of the World Trade Center attacks. One fellow had enthusiastically told his wife the night before he was killed how much he loved his family and his job. He said he had never been happier. It made me ask myself what kind of work could excite my passions like that. My thoughts came back to Notre Dame as a place I had always cared about deeply. To me Notre Dame was always an ideal institution of good intentions, community spirit and historical significance, to cite just a few of its characteristics. Oh, and I happened to like everything about football and other athletics at ND, not counting when we lost.
A day or so later, I called Lou and asked if the job was still open. Silly me. I didn’t realize then how slow the wheels turn in academia. In August 2002, a year after I had first turned down the job, I arrived back in South Bend, moving into a home that my wife, Keiko, and I purchased on the southern edge of town. I started work the following Monday, 38 years and two months after I was graduated. In fact, I drove into a parking slot about 200 yards from my freshman-year room on the fourth floor of Keenan Hall.
Another factor, which Lou had taken into consideration with his initial offer, was my son, Kenny, who was then a freshman. Keiko and I were concerned about how he’d feel becoming an instant "townie,‘’ but he was a good sport about it. He continued to live in Siegfried Hall and, later, off campus. We got to know his friends and roommates better and tried to provide a home away from home for them. Last May we were thrilled to throw a commencement party for all of them. It was great to share a bit of those years with him.
I served as chief spokesman for the University, managed the news release operation and our website, and generally kept an eye out for both opportunities and “landmines” that could affect the University’s image. I settled into a nice corner office on the third floor of the Main Building, right above where the Band of the Fighting Irish steps off before home football games, and I was happily blessed also with a lively, talented and loyal staff of eight.
The job had its ups and downs, but which one doesn’t? Controversial coaching changes and political culture wars are not good for the soul or stomach of the University spokesman. I never had a serious disagreement with a University officer or decision-maker, but sometimes I strained to hold back my personal opinions when answering an angry email from an alum. No, the stresses were no match for my old editor’s job on a day-to-day basis, but occasionally I was the personification of the University, the one doing the talking, which in turn prompted the full range of emotional responses one gets in a public role these days.
Probably my greatest frustration was being on the other side of the journalistic divide from reporters, particularly young ones, who in my previous role paid me at least a modicum of deference. Now I was lucky if they returned my phone calls or emails when I tried to sell a story idea.
Then there was the day Father Malloy decided to criticize the decision by Father Jenkins to fire Coach Willingham. Whatever skills I had for “spinspeak” had to be utilized. With counseling from both inside and outside the building, I fashioned a statement that acknowledged the disagreement but looked to move forward. It was a tense episode, but, in a way, exciting, if one is given to that kind of high-wire act. It required my digging deep into my professional experiences to do what I felt was best for Notre Dame.
Though the Information Age makes for more intensity in crises like these, it also floods the public with so much information that soon the details of the latest controversy blend into a white noise of facts and opinion. A year later, with Charlie Weis doing well as our football coach, much of the pain of 2004 seemed to be forgotten.
Surrounding my professional duties were the joys of being back within the warm embrace of the community. Every corner of campus carries a memory. Any alum knows that from occasional visits. For me, that experience didn’t lessen with frequency. Time doesn’t always allow for a stroll around the grounds, but when it does, I recall with vivid clarity the touch football games, the practical jokes, a nocturnal beer run (a “hanging offense,” back in those days) or throwing a football in front of Walsh with a guy who eventually won a Heisman Trophy, John Huarte ‘65. Whenever I cross that diagonal sidewalk stretching from the South Dining Hall toward Lyons, I remember sophomore year when I saw classmate Dick Wolsfeld ’64 break his elbow diving for a football. It still makes me shudder, and I wonder how Dick feels when he crosses that spot.
Lyons also reminds me of bringing my daughter, Aimee, to start her college career there in August 1983. Sitting on a bench near Morrissey that day, I marveled that 19 years after I had left, guys were still playing touch football on that quad. On the North Quad I often think of Nick Schoen, a fellow freshman who transferred. Nick and I were close friends, and I visited his home in Minnesota the following Thanksgiving. He died of cancer in 1966, but the memories linger of hanging together on that quad and on the fourth floor of Keenan.
Better than the memories are the new experiences.
Notre Dame is a wonderful place to work, which is not to say perfect. Unlike some of my experiences in the private sector, nearly everyone really wants to be here and shares allegiance to the basic tenets of the mission. They also tend to be friendly, generous people. Although I managed to avoid his chemistry classes as a freshman, Dr. Emil T. Hofman ’53M.S., ’63Ph.D., who sits on a bench near the Main Building virtually every day of the year, has become a great friend and confidant. At age 84, he’s been here more than half a century, student, teacher and inaugural dean of first-year studies. Every village has its living legend.
And no matter how intense or low-key your own faith, the spiritual nature of the people and the environs are truly food for the soul. My predecessor in the Department of News and Information, Denny Moore ‘70, was such a person. Denny was a great writer, an unmatched interpreter and historian of Notre Dame, and a great fan of beers and movies. Yet he lived the life of a saint. When cancer took him from us much too soon, in December 2003, we were comforted with the knowledge he would surely be welcomed home by the Lord. Fortunately, there are others like Denny, and if I can’t match their examples I can still take pleasure in my observations of their goodness.
Then there are the students. Maddening sometimes when engaged in alcohol-induced foolishness, but wonderful to know as people. Some worked in our office and some I have taught in my journalism classes. They are earnest, good-hearted, amazingly bright kids. Though gender relations on campus would appear to still be in need of improvement, the young women of Notre Dame have improved this campus immeasurably. For my money, women are the best thing that happened to Notre Dame since it was named after one.
The Notre Dame campus is a great place to watch families. Parents strive to be able to afford to send their child here and do what they can to encourage him or her to excel. They sweat out the admissions process and then, on a weekend in late August, prepare to turn this child over to a new life. I am an avid observer of freshman orientation, those moments when pride and anxiety compete ferociously in the humid summer air. Over the next few days, one occasionally sees a newly independent son or daughter who appears confused and bewildered. But in a few more weeks the first year students are blending seamlessly.
Four years later on commencement weekend, the joy is palpable, although there is a new character to the fear of separation. Many of those once bewildered students are now struggling with the notion of life away from the Dome. My favorite part of that weekend is the final visit to the Grotto on Thursday evening. It’s a mixture of fun and prayer, and a procession of lighted candles from the Basilica to the Grotto as our marvelous Folk Choir sings, “Lead, Kindly Light.” Every year, it’s a great Notre Dame moment.
Which reminds one of another benefit of working here, or at any college: the academic calendar. Its many breaks can impede progress in a business sense, but it’s a wonderfully varied way of life, mixing intense labor with rites of passage and time for reflection.
Most alums experience the campus on beautiful fall weekends. But we who work here know the campus is even more attractive during the quiet weeks of summer with all its lush greenery. There’s nary a plant without a new layer of mulch. There is a sense of anticipation for the school year ahead and a tinge of mourning for the seniors who have just moved on. The quiet season begins the Tuesday after commencement, when the last senior has departed and the Grotto is still wall-to-wall with their farewell candles.
The work life for staff, and some faculty, remains, but at a slower pace. Sometimes the only noise is the powerful sprinklers arcing over the quads. Starbucks in LaFortune is nearly empty most summer mornings. There is a week or so right after commencement when the campus is at its emptiest. Summer school has not yet started; visitors are few. One such evening, I happened to be sitting outside the totally darkened LaFortune. I thought of all the thousands of students who have passed through its doors, contrasting with the utter silence of that twilight. It’s the kind of moment you only have if you are part of the permanent population. At that time of year, the campus seems to be regenerating itself, a feeling that intensifies as August begins to pass. Then one day late in the month, one hears the band echoing off buildings across campus, and, as Father Hesburgh says of that moment, “You know we’re back in business.”
On the other end of the climatic scale is winter. Mornings are dark, and one often drives to work under lighted street lamps. The skies are perpetually gray. The icy chill can freeze high spirits for everyone on campus, but it also can be conducive to getting things done without the distractions of football season. Crossing the DeBartolo Quad as classes change on a February morning reminds you that serious work is going on here. Sunday evenings, the students gather in their dorms for late Mass, sharing a kind of intimacy as they join hands for the Lord’s Prayer and circle the altar for the Eucharist. There’s a lot going on here beneath the perma-cloud and the falling snow.
As mentioned, my office overlooked where the marching band steps off in front of the Main Building. In November, the nearly 400 musicians step on the damp fallen leaves, and stains cover the sidewalk. During the winter the snow sweepers come by and gradually erase the stain. When the sidewalk is free of darkness once again, you know it’s spring. Anyone can tell you it’s not easy to find spring in South Bend, so it helps to have clues.
Coming back to Notre Dame gave me a chance to find a new love—teaching. I preside over a seminar on media ethics each spring semester. This January I gave up the cozy corner office to take up teaching full time. I will teach a “News in American Life” course in the fall. It will allow my wife and me to spend our summers in Maine, where we have just built a new home. But I can still do the things I like most at ND—interacting with students, visiting Emil on his bench, taking in athletic and cultural events, trekking daily to Starbucks, and enjoying the scene as I walk those old sidewalks.
Returning here was one of the best decisions of my life. After an intoxicating and hectic life as a newspaper editor and the life of a minor celebrity in Boston, I tell friends back home that it allows me to live my life in the present tense. No one comes up to me on the street, still telling me what’s wrong with the Globe. Instead I live a life in which I am often emotionally touched. If nothing else does it in a given week, the 11.45 a.m. Folk Choir Mass at the Basilica will restore my spirit. And I’m in one of those few spots on earth where you just feel you belong.
At one of the commencement ceremonies last year, a departing senior said it well. “The Notre Dame experience—from the outside looking in, you can’t understand it; from the inside looking out you can’t explain it.”
Matt Storin retired as associate vice president for news and information in January 2006. He continues to teach at the University.
Fighting Irish Legends
by Bob Plain ’69
Greensboro, North Carolina
Written in January 1994 for my father, George Plain ’39
The game and the athlete have played a prominent role in my life. I have logged untold hours and miles in support of Little League, CYO, recreation, Y, junior high, high school, collegiate and professional sports events. I have been a fan, player, parent, coach, official, sibling rival and sometimes all these. The dilemma of going from player to fan, fan to parent or parent to coach has been juggled by and even fumbled by me. What the heck, you get paid big money to bat .333.
I am a loyal son connected to other sons and daughters, cousins marching to various victories. A common bond among us has been the trials of the Fighting Irish, but truth be told we are a collection of Avengers, Rams, Friars, Rockets, Aggies, Green Waves and Tar Heels, with connections to some Mighty Ducks and other animals. What a revelation it is to know that we send our volleys on high to any number of gods.
While the first tune I can recall starts with “Cheer, Cheer,” a Yankee is the first public face in my mind. Later, I was amused by the line “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,” figuring he had turned into Mickey Mantle. From an early age the enemy was in Brooklyn, and I heaved a sigh of relief when they retreated to Los Angeles. My youthful images were also part Jack Nicklaus when he was still a bear, Bill Bradley as a tiger, Frank Gifford without Kathi Lee or Regis, a brother. Radio shaped my vision a bit before television came along to blur it. I was helped by voices of Mel Allen and Red Barber, and I still recall the “it’s way back, it’s going…” Coaches I first knew were Stengle, Lombardi, Auerbach and, of course, Rockne, from the movie, and Terry Brennan from the field with Layden, Leahy, Devore and Kucharick in the mix. Reading was a pleasure as long as it was Chip Hilton, Sports Illustrated or the box scores of the Star Ledger.
By the time I was a teen I had seen Mickey at the Stadium, Campy at Ebbetts, Willie at the Polo Grounds, Cousy at the Garden, the Golden Boy against the Cadets, Army-Navy in Philly and Kareem, nee Lew, in the city. This trend continued, and I now can add a Derby, the Indy 500, the 10-10 game and OJ’s last Trojan appearance. These compare only fair now to the highlights of my own children in Chris’ match in the states, Bob’s last-quarter heroics vs. Hendricken, Matt’s Turkey Day pass and Joshua’s gamer at Guilford. There is no question in my mind, New Year’s Day is the best holiday, March Madness is my favorite season, The Masters is the start of spring, the Series closes summer and every October a cold gray sky ushers in a new set of Irish horsemen.
My father, brother and I, classes of 1939, ‘77 and ’67 respectively, all share the Rock, Fieldhouse and Stadium. But we all were in South Bend when the playing fields were different. Dad came through the tunnel and played on the sacred turf, caught passes and did things others have dreamed of. The world was large then, campus was small, Ted was a student and football was a game. Dad was a player, still is. In my time, I made the transition to spectator, all my classmates “could have been a contender.” It was the 1960s, we were dreamers. It started to become obvious that non-coed meant no females. Ted was the Head and an Armenian leader was returning glory to Rockne’s house. The Michigan State game ushered in the dawn of “Big Money College Football.” It was also the age of protest and forces clashed many times in my tenure. I was a quiet rebel, still am.
By my brother Steve’s mid-1970s time at Notre Dame, there were towers and convocation centers. The Irish played in Bowl games and the only important drafts left were to the NFL and NBA. Ted was a legendary leader of campus and advisor to presidents. The endowment could have paid off the national debt. President Carter spoke at graduation. Steve was involved in the student body; he always will be.
Notre Dame’s image, some of it true, means different things to each of us, yet we share her history and legend.
The point is that I worry. I worry that when our family conversations start off with a review of the last game we will never get to feelings or politics. I want the next generation to know that there is a real tragedy of Irish fighting in Belfast. I do not want to forget that great plays have been sent in by Ibsen and Williams, too. We must understand that racial and gender equality have little to do with athletics. A college education is a treasure and a pleasure that spans not 24 home games but 100-plus credit hours of mind exploration. I hope that our children will know how important JFK, MLK and RFK were to us when they were people, not stadiums. I want us to remember to shake down some thunder in the face of violence when the opponent is ignorance.
Ok, let me see. If FSU squeaks by and Florida whomps the Mountaineers . . .
The name game
by Michael Barron ’87
Oak Park, Illinois
In my junior year, I lived in Stanford Hall. We had a very spartan study hall where most minds were engaged on any one of a number of non-study activities.
One night, a student named Gleason passed gas, and my dorm friend, Fred, yelled, “Gleason, you a—hole!” At that point three different Gleasons got up to take issue with Fred’s remark, to which he exclaimed, “Notre Dame … the only place on earth where you can yell , "Gleason, you a—hole!’ in a room, and three guys get up to kick your a—!”
Putting the Pieces Together
by Lynn Marshall ’50
“How many here have read Life magazine?” All the hands in Professor O’Malley’s freshmen
English class went up. “How many have read David Copperfield?” One hand was raised.
O’Malley’s class was the first one I had at Notre Dame. I had come from a demanding Jesuit Prep school in New York City and didn’t know quite exactly what I would find in the Midwest.
The tone of his class was immediately established. He called on each student to define the role of a teacher. No one hit the mark as far as he was concerned. “Ah, gentlemen, you have all failed the question. A teacher is one who brings out the inwardness of a student. And don’t ask me to define inwardness.”
If Kurt Vonnegut had been listening in, he would have provided a graphic illustration of that word. He told his students at the Iowa School of Writing that to find out what each of them were made of, he would put his hand down their throats, reach deep inside to extricate the camera that was there, pull it up and look at what its film showed.
After those introductory remarks, the writing marathon was explained. Each student would submit a paper every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on a topic assigned by the master. Each paper would be returned and critiqued in the next class after it was submitted. O’Malley’s written comments on the paper were your guide.
During our first semester, the multiplicity of topics was astonishing:
+Describe the sound of a person taking a bite into an apple
+See the movie The Bicycle Thief and write about it
+The American Way of Life
+What is Success
+Robert Hutchin’s Criticism of American Education
+The Reader’s Digest
+I am going to read you passages from Mark Twain and James Thurber. Write whom you think is the true humorist and why
And then the tsunami of criticism appeared from his pen:
+All you do is reiterate, reiterate that you found the campus beautiful. But there isn’t even a hint of detail to show what makes the beauty, what you have seen.
+OKEH, Mr. Marshall.
+No way at all.
+You shouldn’t be concerned about punch lines. Fitness and effectiveness, of course, are desirable. But “punch lines” is another matter.
+Very vivid, sharp, swift, Lynn. Perhaps you need more detail, though—and the whole thing is extremely jerky.
+Nice, but doesn’t quite fit.
At Christmas time he handed out to each of us a blank piece of paper with the mark A++ on it.
The second semester continued with the never-ending medley of topics. But after last semester’s bumpy take-off, the ascent became smoother.
+Nice, Lynn. A further development might make this one even nicer, of course.
+These are wonderful expressions of the common states of mind.
+Fine! You have the right tone—and the kind of flexible, limber prose.
+You do it beautifully well.
If, as Shakespeare said in Lear, “ripeness is all,” O’Malley was becoming the all ripener at this point in my life.
There was only the final exam to take. Everyone wondered what O’Malley would give to encompass his year-long global teaching.
This is the exam paper he handed out: Please write about the following poem:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles in all stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced-fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim
There was a universal groan from the class. I think, however, that O’Malley wasn’t interested in our analysis but how we went about taking a whack at it. He meant it to stretch, to reach. A few students froze.
After this class, I only had one more encounter with O’Malley—on a campus sidewalk.
He asked me how my summer had gone. I told him I had managed to read War and& Peace during
that period. “Ah,” he said, “a vast panorama of Russian history. Too bad you didn’t read Ulysses.”
After ND, my life continued with whisperings from O’Malley to follow me through10
years of law practice, 20 years in sub-Sahara Africa, five years in Haiti and 10 years
teaching English to private high school students.
Glory be to God for dappled English teachers!
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