It was 1997 and my brother’s first Christmas home after the fall of his freshmen year at Notre Dame. Our family was in church, although it was not our parish but one that we went to sometimes because the priest is an old friend of ours. At the end of Mass we began the slow shuffle out of the church when my brother noticed an older gentleman with a weathered blue coat bearing a tiny N, overlapped by an equally tiny D, too small for the hurried passerby to notice, yet just large enough for a Domer.
“Excuse me, did you go to Notre Dame?” Don asked the gentleman.
“Actually I did, I was part of the Leahy era and lived in Dillon Hall.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I live in Alumni.” Don replied.
Though the conversation consisted of little more than an exchange of names and quick-witted shots at the rivals’ residence, a bond had been formed. Thinking little of the encounter, Don returned to Notre Dame in the spring and continued to enjoy his experience there. Some weeks later he received a letter in the mail; it was addressed simply to Don Pierce, Alumni Hall. The letter from Mitch Pieronek ’48 revealed that he lived only three blocks from our home in Grosse Point, Michigan. Mitch told Don he visiting South Bend in a few weeks and asked him to join him for dinner. Don accepted, and thus began a long stretch of dinners and desserts, even a beer or two, between the two men either at home in Michigan or in South Bend.
The following fall, when I was applying to Notre Dame, Mitch offered to let me use his typewriter. He felt that the Admissions Office always preferred students who took a little extra care. Over the course of a few weeks, Mitch and I put down on the application all of the qualities we thought might make me attractive to Notre Dame. Although I was unsettled about my chances, Mitch was always encouraging, always confident that I “had what it takes” or "fit the description of a Notre Dame man." Thanks to Mitch and his typewriter, I made it.
In similar crossroads in my life or whenever I had to make a difficult decision, I sought Mitch’s guidance. I often joked with him about having some pull “up there” because whenever I asked him to pray for me about something, it always turned out all right. In other situations in which I wonder what I should do, I think of Mitch, the most venerable person I have ever known, and ask myself, “What would Mitch do in this situation?” The relationship my brother and I had with Mitch Pieronek was irreplaceable. We had no remaining grandparents, and he filled the void more plentifully than what I would expect from four.
One day in the fall of 2001, I had “a moment” with Mitch that will stick with me for the rest of my life. During a dinner with Mitch, who was a walking collection of aphorisms, he would often unearth one or more pearls of wisdom that I worked hard to remember so I could copy them down later. This encounter with Mitch was different though; it was not what he said, but what he did not say.
It was a Thursday evening of a home football game, and our beloved band was practicing in the distance as Mitch and I were walking across the stadium lots to his car. Suddenly, the alma mater, “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” came on. Mitch, this man whom I respected so much and who had seen so much turbulence in the way of wars and losses of loved ones and such, broke down and began to cry. It was not the tears of physical discomfort or of horrible news; it was a kind of respectful crying, one that symbolized in one moment Mitch’s lifelong love and union with this university, and his gratitude for it. As any member of The Greatest Generation would, Mitch quickly composed himself and said simply, “I’m sorry. It gets me every time.”
Sadly, Mitch passed away on Christmas morning 2002. He died one semester before I graduated, though his thoughtfulness did not prevent him from commemorating the achievement. The beautiful bronze plaque on display in my house bearing the University’s crest and my name had been ordered by Mitch almost two years prior to my graduation.
To me, Mitch is Notre Dame. He was everything great that this university encompasses, and he was everything that Domers would want their university to represent: faith, optimism, morality, fairness, honor in both victory and defeat. He truly appreciated all that he was given by coming here. Notre Dame had shaped his life, a life of family, friendships, generosity and dignity. I only hope that we do not take this gift for granted.
Tom Pierce can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.