James B. King, who has been rector at Sorin College, as the residence hall is known, since 2003, offers a behind-the-scenes view of the funny, touching, annoying and joyful events that mark the Notre Dame residential tradition. Following is an excerpt from his book; copyright Corby Publishing.
READ AN EXCERPT from the chapter: Small Fish in Big
Despite Notre Dame’s $5 billion-plus endowment, the Palace at Sorin College is one of many rooms, particularly in older halls, that could pass for mildewed, cold-water, Hell’s Kitchen walkup tenements at the turn of the last century. They are character-laden repositories of tradition, and that is the most sacred secular word at Notre Dame. Most students actually prefer these dorms to the newer cinderblock versions with air-conditioning.
It helps that about 23 percent of our student body are alumni children and have been forewarned about what to expect. My classmates and I walked into forced doubles with surplus World War II metal lockers and mattresses mottled with sweat stains. My mother just laughed. Then again, she was the postwar, pre-cell phone generation, not the age of amenities. Every year before the freshmen arrive, I sweat about a mom or dad gong ballistic with the, “I’m paying $9,000 a year in room and board for this!” speech. While I have witnessed some stunned looks, my ears have yet to be assaulted by a violent rant.
After one day here, most new freshmen have already been indoctrinated to touch the shiny toe of the 3-foot founder’s statue in the front hallway every time they pass. That’s one way to verify that he hasn’t been hijacked. In the 1950s it disappeared and for years afterward, University officials received periodic ransom notes with pictures of Father Sorin resting in front of various world wonders like the Eiffel Tower and Great Wall.
It is a committed thief who will pay extra shipping charges for lugging a miniature priest around the globe in his suitcase. The TSA might prevent Father Sorin from skipping through airports so easily these days, but now he is safely anchored into our floor with a core of concrete and rebar that only an earthquake can topple.
After a few days, the initial shock has worn off, and I hear snatches of cell phone conversations with friends back home: “You wouldn’t believe this dorm. It’s great. It’s like, just all this history, and the guys are really cool here…” After all the nervous tension associated with the herd’s arrival, I am invariably relieved. My favorite rooms are the freshman quads: four guys, one large room. In four years, I’ve only had one freshman threaten to slit his roommate’s throat in the middle of the night. Quads are an interesting social experiment that would be good preparation for a shot on Survivor.
[When I was a Notre Dame student] my freshman roommate . . . was from western Massachusetts. Luckily, I was assigned to a double, but as an only kid, one roommate was enough of an adjustment. I was a poli sci major; he was an engineer. I arrived with my South Side Irish accent sounding more like Mayor Daley than I do now: “‘Da Cubs haven’t got a prayer to beat ’dose Mets ’dis year.” John spoke like he’d taken elocution lessons from the Kennedy sisters. He did advanced calculus problems for fun and wasn’t interested in baseball. I was on my high school traveling bowling team; I think he lettered in debate. He gargled for 10 minutes every morning; I used toothpaste to hide nail holes in the walls at the end of the year so we wouldn’t be fined. I realized he was a much better guy than I’d given him credit for, but it took a couple of years. I regret that I never told him and have lost track of him since.
One of those freshman quads from a couple of years ago specialized in blowing a plastic horn that sounded like the bleating of a pregnant moose out the window for hours at a time. One Saturday they started at 12:45 in the afternoon and went on more or less continuously until 2 a.m. I know that I have adapted to the environment when a noise drives other students nutty without fazing me. Slamming doors, stereos with pulsating basses shaking walls two floors below, and bouncing basketballs echoing up and down the hallway rarely cause my eye to flicker. Pseudo nature calls, however test students’ patience. The horn disappeared early in their sophomore year. Not surprisingly, they managed to find other amusements since just about anything will bore them with enough repetition.
Real animal sounds occasionally emanate from residence rooms too. Perhaps when a rector appeared at dinner several years ago and told us that several of his students, driving back through the countryside around 2 a.m. had climbed a barbed-wire fence, stolen a sheep, and snuck it up to their room, perhaps we should have been outraged and sympathetic. Instead, a table of priests just howled even louder as he related how the sheep went into shock and evacuated a Toro bag full of half-digested grass onto the carpet. We are accustomed to scolding them to their faces while laughing later among ourselves at their escapades. It’s a coping mechanism. After 20 years, plastic horns are a most minor nuisance, at least before 2 a.m.