When I arrived as a freshman at Notre Dame in 1980, it was the first time I’d been away from my parents. Having lived in Hawaii all my life, my contact with the mainland United States was minimal; Disneyland at age 10 was it. I saw snow only on TV. South Bend, Indiana, was as foreign to me as most Midwesterners would consider Hawaii’s culture and customs to be. I was definitely a fish out of water.
I met Professor George Viger (pronounced vee-jay) in 1981 during my second semester. I was having trouble with my grades, and taking a required accounting course by a professor called “Easy A V-Jay” seemed like a good way to get my GPA up. He was tall, lean and soft-spoken—so much so that I had a hard time hearing him in class. We all did. It was a good way to get his students to really pay attention. You had to sit in front and lean forward so you wouldn’t miss anything. I remember he always wore a coat and tie. He also wore those glasses that would darken in the light and vice versa. Even given his nickname, I struggled with his class.
When I met Professor Viger at his office to get some help, I was nervous. His easy-going demeanor immediately put me at ease. After he explained some basic accounting concepts, we talked about Hawaii. He loved Hawaii. While flying for the military, he had been stationed in Oahu. We talked about familiar locations like Diamond Head, Waikiki and Manoa Valley. He then did something that changed my perspective of being a student at Notre Dame and our relationship as professor and student: He asked me to join him and his wife, Jane, for dinner.
In all my years of schooling, I had never entered into the inner sanctum of my teachers’ lives to join them for dinner. As a freshman I heard stories of professors like Emil T. Hofman, Notre Dame’s famous chemistry teacher, doing this, but only as gossip. What teacher invited their students to dinner? It was virtually unheard of. As I look back, this was a defining moment.
It was cold that afternoon. Professor and Mrs. Viger picked me up at 5 p.m. in a new tan Cadillac Seville. Later I found that they always like to eat early to avoid the crowds. I wore my father’s coat and tie and carried a bouquet of spring flowers for his wife. Mrs. Jane Viger stood all of 5 feet tall and weighed no more than 90 pounds with her purse. She wore a classy dress, and you could tell she’d had her light brown hair done at the local beauty salon that morning. The car was warm and smelled of cigarette smoke and brownies. Mrs. Viger was a chain smoker and a Marine sergeant. The couple had met in San Diego when they were both in the Marine Corps. They had been married for 41 years. She would always refer to her husband as “my Georgie.”
We talked of Hawaii, the weather, Notre Dame football, my family, how the Vigers met and back to Notre Dame football. The Professor drove and walked slowly and methodically, kind of like his classes. Mrs. Viger, on the other hand, was full of energy, always talking to everyone around her. Once we arrived at the Ramada Inn, of which Professor Viger was a part owner, Mrs. Viger introduced me to everyone as “Mike from Ha-waa-ya.” Eventually she would introduce me as her “Number 1 Notre Dame son,” followed by “He’s from Ha-waa-ya.” The restaurant was elegant for Elkart, Indiana; nice furniture with Erte’ art on the walls. Used to surviving on dining hall food, I ate a grand meal of prime rib, baked potato with the works and two desserts. Mrs.Viger took pleasure in my enjoyment of my food.
When we arrived back at the main circle at the Notre Dame campus, Mrs. Viger thanked me for the flowers and handed me a tin of brownies filled with walnuts. The empty tin once returned would be exchanged for a full tin of brownies the next time. This always struck me as strange because Mrs. Viger said she never cooked. She said she had one of those signs in her kitchen that read “closed” on one side and “open” on the other. She joked, “My kitchen is always closed.” Students in any of the Professor Viger’s classes should remember the brownies because they were always there at the end of any major exam—compliments of Mrs. Viger’s closed kitchen.
Professor and Mrs. Viger never had any children, by birth anyway. However, over the span of 25 years they informally adopted hundreds of students from Hawaii. There were six of us from Hawaii at Notre Dame in 1980. We knew each other prior to arriving at O’Hare International in Chicago and hung out together by cultural default. Professor and Mrs. Viger would eventually meet all the kids from Hawaii as well as my roommates at Dillon Hall, who they had me invite individually to dinner at the Ramada once a week. I told the Dillonites to always bring flowers. I became the “Hawaiian Connection” to prime-rib dinners and all-you-can-eat salad bars. The Professor eventually became our Notre Dame Hawaii Club sponsor, and Mrs. Viger our biggest booster.
During the course of my college education, the Professor and Mrs. V., as she was affectionately known, became in Notre Dame terms “in loco parentis” or surrogate parents. In addition to making sure I ate well, Mrs. V. was there to take me out for an ice cream after my first boxing loss in the Bengal Bouts. They also were there to take me to the Ramada to show me my name on the hotel marquee before dinner when I won the bouts the next year. In return, the Notre Dame Hawaii Club would play Hawaiian music for Mrs. Viger’s ladies’ luncheons, and she was never without a bouquet of flowers; yellow mums were her favorites. In my senior year, my younger sister came to Notre Dame as a freshman. The Professor and Mrs. Viger had never had a daughter until then. I knew as I left Notre Dame that my sister would be in good hands when the cold became too much, or the dining hall food was dulling her taste buds. Professor and Mrs. V were only minutes away.
I was a computer management major and had two courses with Professor Viger. I got Bs in both of them (so much for the “Easy A” part). I don’t remember much from his classes, but he would always take me aside and give me a “pearl of wisdom.” He would say, “Mike, always remember, invoice early and pay as late as you can. And always pay your taxes.” I own my own business now. His words on cash flow still ring true.
When it came time to put my four years of schooling to use, Professor took me aside and said, “Mike, you don’t belong behind a computer. You belong in the hospitality industry. Let me see what I can do.” With graduation around the corner and my interviews crashing and burning, anything sounded good. I just needed a job. Mrs. Viger took me out and bought me a new interview suit and shoes, while Professor got me a meeting with a friend of his at the Drake Hilton Hotel in Chicago. His friend then recommended me to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. I got a job in the sales department there, thanks also to Professor Viger’s letter of reference. The Professor and Mrs. V were there by my side at graduation along with my real parents from Hawaii, Donald ’54 and Yoko. The Vigers even came to Hawaii three times to visit.
Through the years, Professor and Mrs. V. never forgot my birthday or Christmas. Cards would come once a month or so with a check for me to go out to dinner or a gift from the Hammes Bookstore. She would always write “GO IRISH” and “#1 Notre Dame Son” on her cards. In return, I would send Mrs. V. Lalique figurines. She collected them: footballs, shamrocks, banty roosters. Professor always received ducks from me because he hated them. It was a running joke—duck bookends, duck wall hangings, duck umbrellas. To this day, I’m still not sure if he thought my duck gifts were funny.
Mrs. Viger continued to smoke, and arthritis was starting to hinder her letter writing. I still got the letters, but they became harder to read. Still, the former Marine wasn’t going to give up. I would write back, and we would talk of the weather, Notre Dame football, my family, her family, the other students from Hawaii who became her new kids, Notre Dame football . . . Professor and Mrs. V had season tickets and were staunch supporters of ND football, but weather and age seemed to discourage them from going to the stadium, consigning them to watching the game in the warmth and comfort of the University Club or their living room. They always gave the tickets to one of their Notre Dame kids or a needy student or alumni.
In 2001, Professor developed prostate cancer. Mrs. V called me, crying. I never heard her cry before. We continued to stay in touch. Professor seemed to be getting better, and in 2002 my girlfriend, Anna, and I went to visit them. We spent the day at their home and had lunch at the University Club. Professor looked older, but what shocked me was Mrs. Viger. Smoking had finally resigned her to an oxygen tank and a Bromide inhaler. She was still spunky and still doting on the Professor. We had a great visit, and I cried when we left.
Last year on July 29th at 4 p.m., I received a call from the Professor. Mrs. Viger had passed away in her sleep. He was crying. I had never heard him cry before, either.
Professor and I stayed in touch. I would leave messages, and he would return them, but they were short. He seemed sad. His cancer also had returned, eventually spreading to his legs and arms.
In February 2005 I received a call from Joni Viger, Professor’s niece. The Professor had passed away in his sleep two days before his 83rd birthday.
Professor George Viger was buried next to his wife of 60 years, Mrs. Jane Viger, at the Notre Dame Cemetery on his birthday, February 22. I miss the Professor and Mrs. Viger.