I’m not sure when I first heard about the Sophomore Comprehensive Examination. Sometimes it was referred to as “The Orals.” But soon after I entered Notre Dame in 1957, I heard the Liberal Arts students talking about the rigors of that test scheduled to be given at the end of sophomore year.
I can only imagine that the purpose was twofold: First, to find out if anything a student had studied the first two years had sunk in. Second, to determine if a student could communicate sensibly. There were horror stories circulating around the dorms that certain students who failed the test were told they couldn’t return. The reported numbers of the unfortunates were in the hundreds. To this day I am told that our class of 1961 had the poorest graduation rate in the history of the school. Whether the oral examination was just too much for some or if it was due to the Holy Cross Priest who taught Symbolic Logic freshman year (He was Chinese, had just returned from China, and we couldn’t understand him), I really can’t tell you. Whatever the reason, no one looked forward to The Orals at the end of the sophomore year.
Like many others, I, too, have that dreaded dream where a fellow student asks you: “I didn’t see you at the math exam.” “Math exam? Was that today?” We all know that one. Unlike others, however, my own experience with The Orals was positive. No sweat, as we said in those days. Of course when my appointed interview time arrived I was apprehensive. “Would they ask me something about Plato and the cave? Will I recall the Pythagorean Theorem? When was the War of the Roses?” Turned out the examining professors never asked me a solitary question that pertained to Notre Dame school work. For me, The Orals was duck soup, all the way.
Upon entering the exam room in O’Shaughnessy Hall I was greeted by some eight teachers from the various disciplines. They sat me down at the head of a long table, and I awaited certain failure and dismissal. I wore a coat and tie, always felt smarter and more confident that way. With stern demeanor they looked me over then briefly reviewed a biographical sketch that was a required submission along with class records.
“I see here that you are four years older than most of your class mates, Tom.”
“Why, yes, I was on active duty in the Coast Guard for those years.”
“And I read here where you were a cook and baker aboard a weather ship out of Honolulu for two years and then spent almost two years on recruiting duty in New York City.”
“Yes, that’s is right. Hawaii was great duty. I actually learned how to surf well enough to compete in the Internationals at Makaha. I lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, that was an interesting place near Washington Square. I got on recruiting ‘cause I knew how to type. Alex Haley sat next to me. Part of my Coast Guard job was to be an escort to fashion models, and I got to see a lot of Broadway shows. I was selected as Mr. Coast Guard of 1957. Right place at the right time, you know. I think that’s part of why I got into ND, just dumb luck.”
I had them, every one of them. Their body language showed it. What I hadn’t realized was that these people had spent nearly all of the lives at some college. They had never even tasted “adventure,” only read about it. This wouldn’t be a normal “Orals” interview. I just knew it.
“Now this part about Alaska. Tell us about that.”
“Well it turned out that my roommate in Saint Ed’s Hall was a Navy vet. He and I were used to a lot of freedom, being in the service and all. The restrictions at Notre Dame were hard to adapt to for us. We decided early on that we would do something interesting together during the summer, and I was able to line us up with jobs in Alaska working as stream guards for the Fish & Wildlife Department. Only it turned out that he fell in love over spring break and decided to be a lifeguard in upstate New York instead of a stream guard, so I wound up in Alaska last June through August all alone in a small cabin surrounded by tundra grass, not far from Russia.
“What’s a stream guard?”
“Alaska has more coastline than all of the coastline of the lower states combined. Yep, it’s a fact. The state has a great many rivers and nearly every river has returning salmon during the summer months. If these rivers are not protected from poachers, the salmon don’t have a chance to make it up to their spawning grounds. So Alaska Fish and Wildlife places individual stream guards at the mouths of the larger river systems. It’s kind of a fish cop job.
“I was sent to the Bear River at Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea. Monitoring enough salmon escapement was the primary responsibility. Eagles, wolves, red fox, caribou, sea lions, fur seals—there were a lot of other animals there as well to protect. The Alaskan brown bear is in the same family as the Kodiak bear. An average male is 10 feet tall and can weight up to 1,500 pounds. They are huge. You don’t want to mess with them.
“But after I had been up there for nearly two months, alone with only an occasional fisherman to talk to, I got a little careless. One morning I was out in the river brushing my teeth and washing up when a big “brownie” came around the corner. If ever threatened, the instructions were to lie down and be still. Good luck on that when you are 5 feet from the beast and breathing his steamy breath. You can imagine the strong body smell of a big bear up close like that. About that time a sow bear appeared with her two cubs, and I took off running. For some reason I didn’t have my rifle with me, and the male brownie had the advantage since I had nowhere to escape in the shoulder-tall tundra as there are absolutely no trees that far north. I only just barely beat the bear back to my little cabin built of thin boards. No sooner had I secured the flimsy door than he busted his snarling head through, and I started shooting . . . "
“Tom, we only have 20 minutes for this interview. Perhaps we could schedule another time when you can finish up the Alaskan report, if you wish.
“We hope you’re happy here at Notre Dame and do well with your studies. Do you have a summer job lined up for this year?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do. I have been hired by the Hawaiian Village Hotel to skipper a catamaran at their Water Sports Department on Waikiki and give surfing lessons.”
“Get out of here, Tom. You are just too much for us!!!”
Later, two of the professors invited me to their homes for a home-cooked dinner with their wives and more story telling. I could name names but I won’t. They knew a lot about English or science but had missed out on “living.”
Sophomore Comprehensives turned out to be a breeze.
Thomas Hoban Sr. is the father of Tom, a 1984 ND graduate, and Shawn, a 1988 ND graduate.