It was an unlikely friendship. I was a 30-something University of Michigan transplant, newly hired as the alumni editor for the Notre Dame Alumni Association. He was a 99-year-old, long-retired tax accountant and class secretary for the Class of 1930.
My first interaction with Richard J. Savage in 2007 was all business. I was editing my first class notes for this magazine, and Dick called to introduce himself. He eventually put me on the spot: “What’s a Michigan grad doing working in the Notre Dame Alumni Association?”
I explained that I’d always been a devout Irish fan and told him about the time I met Ara Parseghian the night of the 1973 Sugar Bowl. I even have a photo of the coach holding 2-year-old me in his arms. Finally, he asked: “Who do you cheer for when Notre Dame plays Michigan?”
“Mr. Savage,” I began, “once you come to know me better, you will know that what you just asked is an insult. I’m Irish through and through.”
He laughed. “Angela, darling, please call me Dick.”
That’s when I entered one of the most special and loving friendships I will ever know. Sadly, it lasted only five-and-a-half years, as Dick died on January 30. His death was not unexpected, since Dick was 105 years old. But his mind, charm, memory and quick wit were far younger.
As the only living member of the class, Dick’s columns were full of his own memories and Notre Dame lore. During his junior year, Dick lived near Knute Rockne’s family and would pass the coach every day. “Without fail, Coach Rockne would always greet my friends and me the same way, ‘Hi, men.’ That amused me because we were only boys,” Dick wrote.
Everyone has heard of the “Win one for the Gipper” quote attributed to Rockne during the 1928 Notre Dame-Army game in Yankee Stadium. But Dick was there. “I had a friend who lived in Brooklyn, so he said I could stay at his place for free. So I just jumped on the train with the football team and headed east.”
Though he eventually was the proudest of Domers, Dick came because his father and a cousin’s father wanted the boys to attend college together. He estimated tuition, room and board totaled about $1,000 for the year — including spending money.
Between his sophomore and junior year, Dick met a young woman named Eleanore. They corresponded by mail to fill in the gaps between holidays and were married after graduation. He earned a living as an accountant, and Eleanore stayed home to raise their seven children. They had been married for 60 years when Eleanore died in 1990.
Dick lived the remainder of his life in the home he and Eleanore shared. It held photos of him as a young boy, Notre Dame memorabilia and a copy of the congratulatory letter the Alumni Association sent him for his 100th birthday. “That meant more to me than anything else, including the birthday wishes I received from the mayor of Chicago,” he told me.
Dick loved stories, both reading and telling them, and he was great at holding an audience. Since 2007, I was honored to be his “date” for the ND alumni reunion each year and was stunned by the attention he garnered. Dick was a celebrity, drawing applause and handshakes from hundreds and recognition from Father John Jenkins, CSC, University president.
While he accepted the attention with gracious modesty, I knew Dick secretly enjoyed all the fuss. And he deserved it.
Angela Sienko is assistant director of marketing communications for Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.