Editors’ Note: The following piece is adapted from a speech given at “Paving the Way: Reflections on the Early Years of Coeducation at Notre Dame.” The panel discussion took place on Thursday, November 8, 2012 and was cosponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, the Department of American Studies, the Program of Gender Studies and Badin Hall.
It is a wonderful opportunity to reminisce and reflect on one of the most important periods in the history of the University — a period that certainly set a new and important course for Notre Dame.
I said I would be honored and privileged to be a part of the panel tonight, but there were many better suited men of the class of 1976 — Fathers John Jenkins and Tim Scully or athletic director, Jack Swarbrick — heck, even Rudy. As I was bragging to my wife about this assignment, she reminded me that perhaps the University was looking for an average male’s perspective . . . emphasis on average! My ego was back in its proper place.
The last thing I want to do is to bore you with the details of my life, but I need to give you some context in order to reflect on 1972. I am one of five boys, no sisters. My high school, although co-ed, was new and two-thirds male, and my relationships with women consisted of my wonderful mother and the terrific Franciscan and IHM nuns who taught me. When I was accepted to Notre Dame and was informed that I would be a part of the first co-educational class, I was ecstatic! However, I did not realize there would be only 200 women in the class — I wasn’t great at math but I could do the odds.
I was ecstatic but I was worried how my father, a 1948 Notre Dame grad, would take the news that his university was about to change in a big way. He was pretty traditional but always objectively loyal to the place. I should not have worried. He was concerned about some of the traditions being lost, but he was all for it, after reflection. He knew it might raise the admission bar for his remaining sons, but it swung the door open for his future granddaughters. I won’t say he didn’t hear from a few of his classmates that this was a tragic decision (he did), but he was undeterred.
So in 1972, the class of 1976 arrived with great enthusiasm and fanfare. As I reflect back on those early years, and at the risk of stereotyping, the boys/men of Notre Dame seemed to fall into three categories: A small percentage who felt that the new women had invaded their space, taken a couple of their dorms; a larger percentage were ready to strut their stuff so to speak — impress you, sweep you off your feet, mostly upperclassmen; and a third group was just plain oblivious. Not that they didn’t care — they were a little listless, just more concerned about being with and just plain being guys — mostly freshmen.
One of the great heroes of co-education was Sister Jean Lenz, at the time, rector of Farley Hall. I did not know Sister Jean as an undergrad but I got to know her a little during my 28 years of working at Notre Dame. She had a saying which I thought applied to that larger, listless, oblivious group I described. She would say that students would “grow up and grow deep” while at Notre Dame. Boy, this group needed all of that.
We Notre Dame men knew that the new Notre Dame women were smarter, more prepared and definitely more mature. They had already begun to “grow up and grow deep.” We men were a bit intimidated, and so what do large groups of intimidated males do? They try to be funny; they try to take advantage of larger numbers; they lose sight of decorum. There were plenty of good, respectful, sensitive men at Notre Dame, but the “group think” would take over from time to time, especially in the early years.
The women of 1972 were, without a doubt, pioneers, as they are deservedly called. The tone they established back then continues to pay dividends today and the women have been so exceptional all along the way. For 40 years — time and again, I have had the privilege of witnessing this through my work here — in speakers, in ambassadors, in volunteers, in athletes and in leaders.
Those early women changed the place and its people — but maybe in ways they are not aware — that oblivious, listless, immature group of boys eventually did grow up and grow deep — and they graduated, and they married, and they became fathers and they became fathers of daughters, and I guarantee you that as we raised our daughters we had those early women, our classmates, in mind as role models. Strong. Faithful. Smart. Loyal. Because as Sister Jean also used to say, “People get you ready for other people." And they did just that; they prepared us to be fathers of the future women of Notre Dame.
The University has made such great progress over the years and I can’t help but be in awe — Father Ted’s vision is now so crystal clear and co-education has played such a vital role in its progress. But it is no time to let up — institutions also need to “grow up and grow deep,” so Notre Dame needs to continue to be vigilant when it comes to co-education and its opportunities for women. There is still room to grow.
Let me close with a quote from Professor Paul Rathburn, now retired but longtime Arts and Letters professor. He was here in 1972 and said, “I was convinced at the time, and still am, that ‘going co-ed’ was one of the most brilliant moves Notre Dame ever made. The University will never be the same, and I thank God for it.”
Dan Reagan ’76 is a former associate vice president for University Relations at ND, and retired in 2012 after 28 years of service to the University. He now operates a fundraising consulting firm in South Bend.