Frank Hering’s name has long been obscured in the shadows of Rockne and Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz. But he had a profound influence at Notre Dame — and around the country. Those who knew him considered Hering the grandfather of Notre Dame football, the father of Mother’s Day and the guardian of the dispossessed. A lifetime of service to powerful institutions and powerless individuals alike made an impact that resonated with his contemporaries.
When he died in 1943, Eagle Magazine, which Hering founded and served for 35 years as managing editor, laid it on pretty thick: “Frank Hering’s humanity to man lay like a sunset haze over rugged mountains, softening their harsh realities.”
Lester Loble, the Fraternal Order of Eagles’ Grand Worthy President, went into more detail. “He was the founder of the old age pension movement: tonight, more than two million old people are free from the haunting fear of poverty — because Frank E. Hering lived,” Loble wrote. “He was the dynamic leader for mothers’ pensions: tonight, countless children say their prayers at their mother’s knee — because Frank E. Hering lived.”
And he could inspire others. Fred Koehnemann, director of the Friendly Workshop, a self-help group for the unemployed that Hering and his wife, Clarabel, helped establish, recalled when the Herings hosted about 100 men for Christmas dinner in the depths of the Depression. “As he spoke, hope filled their hearts. A man who gave hope to the desperate — that was Frank Hering.”
Those tributes, among many others, echoed a line from Hering’s own poetry that admirers considered a central theme of his eclectic life: “So live that when you die, the poor, the sick, the outcast will mourn the passing of a friend.”
The president of the United States mourned Hering’s passing, too. Among the Eagle Magazine memorials, Franklin D. Roosevelt praised Hering’s support for the original Social Security legislation and said, “his name will be held in grateful remembrance by all who love fair play and equal justice to all.” Eulogies from such luminaries as Notre Dame president Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, CSC, and legendary college football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg credited his academic and athletic impact.
Hering came to Notre Dame in 1896 to study philosophy and play quarterback. He had played for two years under Stagg at the University of Chicago and coached for a year at Bucknell. As the Notre Dame team captain he also served as head coach in the custom of the time. His teams posted a 12-6-1 record from 1896 to 1898.
The brevity of his coaching career notwithstanding, Hering deserves credit for a significant innovation, according to a 1913 Scholastic article: the field goal. In an 1897 game against Chicago, he became the first coach to employ a place kick from scrimmage. The team “negotiated a goal from placement from the 35-yard line, scoring five points. Following the introduction of the play by Notre Dame, it became a regular part of the aggressive play of the football teams of the country.” Not quite the forward pass, perhaps, but forward progress nonetheless. He also coached the first Notre Dame basketball team (1897-98) along with track (1897-98) and baseball (1896-99), and served as athletic director (1898-1900).
After earning a law degree in 1902, Hering remained at Notre Dame as a professor. One day he noticed a colleague distributing penny postcards in class and asked why. Their assignment, the instructor said, was to write notes to their mothers, a monthly assignment to honor her by.
Thus, the legend goes, Hering got the idea for an official, national day of recognition for mothers — Mother’s Day. However his interest began, he did make what is believed to be the first call for an annual day of observance honoring mothers in a speech he delivered to the Eagles’ national convention on February 7, 1904. A plaque at the English Opera House in Indianapolis commemorates his address. A decade of advocacy culminated when President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first official Mother’s Day in 1914.
Hering’s service to Notre Dame continued long after his teaching and coaching days. He became a trustee, a valued counselor to administrators and a patron of Knute Rockne’s burgeoning football program, even funding awards for the most improved players in spring practice. Beginning in 1927, he led committees that studied the financial plans and potential locations for a new football stadium. When Notre Dame Stadium opened on October 4, 1930, Hering gave the dedication speech.
While helping to raise the “House That Rockne Built,” Hering also helped Rockne build a team. His football background made him a natural for the coach’s unofficial network of scouts. After two losses in the first four games of the 1928 season, Hering wrote to Rockne, “I am going to do what I can to aid you in getting more satisfactory material. . . . No coach, no matter what his ability may be, can turn out a first-class team with second-class material.”
A week later, Rockne invited Hering to travel with the team to the Army game. “You might be just what we [need] to change our luck,” Rockne wrote. “I think the psychology is about right for us to beat those fellows.” There was no correspondence to confirm whether Hering attended the 12-6 Notre Dame victory, during which Rockne reputedly tapped into the team’s psychology with his “Win one for the Gipper” speech.
Beyond football, Hering’s interests spanned a spectrum from politics to poetry. His verse was collected in a book he called Poems, which he dedicated to the University. And in another expression of his wide-ranging social service, he and his wife established Hering House in 1925, a center for South Bend’s growing African-American community.
Not all his actions were perceived to be so selfless. In 1932, Hering and two others were convicted of violating federal lottery laws in connection with an Eagles’ contest. “The two associates were charged with running a lottery for personal profit,” sportswriter Dave Condon wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “Hering’s role was considered a minor one,” but he was sentenced to four months in prison and fined $2,000. His appeal reached the Supreme Court before FDR pardoned him. “Still,” Condon wrote, “the memory of that incident always troubled a noble man.”
It never diminished the nobility others saw in him. At the time of Hering’s death, Father O’Donnell praised his contributions to Notre Dame but valued his commitment to service above all. “Countless times he raised his eloquent voice to plead for the oppressed, of whatever color or creed,” O’Donnell said, “to help them attain the place in society which they deserve because of the sacredness and dignity of the human person.”
Not a bad legacy for an old coach.
Jason Kelly is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine and the author of Mr. Notre Dame: The Life and Legend of Edward “Moose" Krause.
Photo of Frank Hering from University of Notre Dame Archives.