Thank you, Father Ted
by Ron Zier ’52
Wyckoff, New Jersey
Fifty eight years ago, Father Ted Hesburgh changed my life.
I arrived at Notre Dame at 8 a.m. on Sunday, September 12, 1948, making the14-hour trip from Manhattan on the New York Central’s Pacemaker. I was accompanied by two suitcases and a sense of adventure. Unfortunately, reflecting my status as a late acceptance, I quickly learned that there was no dormitory space available.
Instead, I was assigned to South Bend’s Hotel Oliver, along with five other similarly disenfranchised souls. The six of us shared a room with a single bath—the epitome of gracious living. It was particularly harrowing at 7 a.m. as our group rushed to make the bus that would get us to campus for our 8 o’clock classes.
At 17 years old, I did not acclimate well to this scenario. My high-school study habits had not been stringent. And, suffice it to say, I lacked the discipline to find a quiet spot to study between classes. A perfect formula for failure.
My hotel stay lasted for several weeks before I gained a room in Farley Hall, just a few doors removed from the rector, 31-year-old Theodore Martin Hesburgh, CSC.
The residents of Farley Hall provided him with an interesting challenge. First of all, there were 17- and 18-year-olds, away from home for the first time, and trying to cope with college life. There was also a strong contingent of military veterans, fresh from post-World War II service in Europe and Japan. Understandably, they weren’t thrilled by 10 o’clock bed checks and electricity-off-at-11 regulations. Father Ted’s even-hand made it work.
That was particularly true, following an Italian Club soiree in Roseland. With many of his charges relegated to the bathrooms, reflecting their harsh introduction to Chianti, he ordered the place cleaned up and called a hall-wide meeting for the next morning. There were no draconian punishments. I do recall some recrimination, but it was mostly reconciliation.
At any rate, when midterm marks were published, I had a 75 average; 77 was the numerical hurdle for staying in school. And I was flunking chemistry.
Somehow Father Ted found out about the problem. He had a solution. I was to report to his room every evening after dinner and detail my assignments. I would then return to his room at 11 and discuss the substance of the stuff.
That regimen lasted for a few weeks. Once he was sure I could create my own study schedule, I was released. The system worked. I raised my average, passed chemistry and graduated with my class.
I had an opportunity to remind him of that story a few years ago. He was kind enough to say he remembered.
It doesn’t matter. I do.
Thank you, Father Ted.
Farewell, Boston College
by Dennis Sullivan ’59
Flagler Beach, Florida
Every year on All Saints’ day I have a vivid memory that dates back 50-plus years to that day in 1955. I was a freshman from western Massachusetts, and prior to that time had never been further west than Albany, New York. But then again those were the days when many parents had neither the time nor money to parade their kids to a myriad of colleges so each could make an “informed choice.”
For me I remember boarding a train (the New England States) in Pittsfield and beginning the long, lonely journey to South Bend. I remember my shock as I awakened on the train to observe the Midwest landscape to be devoid of hills, never mind mountains. What a strange place, I thought. The earth must really be flat after all. Up to this point I had never met any official from Notre Dame. All communication had been handled by mail.
As a product of a liberal arts Jesuit prep school, I soon found my selection of aeronautical engineering to be a huge challenge. (The Holy Cross fathers tried to no avail to get me to switch to liberal arts, but I was determined to become an engineer because I knew I could get a job with a higher starting salary.) It wasn’t long before I was stunned and shocked as I looked at a number I didn’t even know existed. The grade on my first calculus test was a 46, and I was ready to pack it in and head for the Berkshire Hills and home. (A few years ago my wonderful friend and classmate, Ray Van Overschelde, now deceased, suggested that the 46 might actually have been one of the higher grades.)
Meanwhile I had been receiving letters from my former high school classmates now enrolled at Boston College, Holy Cross, Fordham and Georgetown (all Jesuit schools), regaling the wonderful times they were having and how easy liberal arts and business courses were. And, they hardly had to study at all, while I was studying around the clock and on weekends, only to manage a 46. To make matters worse I had given up a baseball scholarship to BC, mainly to avoid the over-loving attention I would receive from my father’s eight brothers and sisters who lived in Boston. As the first-born in my generation, I would have received more help and guidance than I could possibly ever stand.
As I struggled mightily, I did what many other freshmen were wont to do. I started dropping little hints of homesickness and other excuses in my weekly letters to my parents, hoping to get permission to leave South Bend at Christmas and get into BC so I could play ball in the spring and get out of engineering. Also I would be saving them a lot of money.
I got up early the morning of All Saints’ day to attend Mass at Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Church, which would still give me time to study before my first class. I sat in the last pew on the side and was praying for a miracle to lift this unfair cross, while wallowing in self-pity. Soon a priest tapped me on the shoulder from behind and asked, “Son, were you ever an altar boy?” “Yes Father,” I replied.” “Would you serve for me today?” he asked. “Yes Father, I would be happy to.” Actually I thought requesting a miracle from the main altar in the church had a much better chance of being heard and granted. I also thought this would make great reading for my mother in my next letter and favorably dispose her to let me go to Boston College. What self-respecting Catholic mother would refuse her son when it came from the main altar at the Sacred Heart?
As I trailed behind the priest it was becoming abundantly clear that I was not going to be on the main altar. Well, so much for the “almost-great story for the folks.”
I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to my surroundings as I followed the priest through a tunnel of what seemed like endless catacombs. The priest wasn’t very conversant either, so I followed like a little puppy dog until we came to a small altar, or private chapel, where he changed into his vestments and had me select an appropriate garment for myself.
The Mass didn’t take long. At least there wasn’t any sermon. It was just the two of us, and it did give me time to pray really hard for that miracle in calculus, or for a way to speed my transition to BC. After Mass the priest invited me to have breakfast with him. As an 18-year-old kid, and with studying to do, I was not at all thrilled at the prospect of having a one-on-one breakfast with a priest. Then I remembered I still hadn’t got used to the smell (or stench) of those rubbery scrambled eggs in the dining hall. So I thought a decent breakfast might be enough reward for being alone with a priest.
At breakfast Father tried hard to get a conversation going, so I got the interminable host of questions. “How do you like Notre Dame?’ How’s school going?” “Do you like your roommates?” He was just trying to be friendly and helpful, but before long I was into major league “dumping.” The poor guy I thought later, to pick me from 5,000 kids. I’ll bet he was sorry he invited me to breakfast; what a pitiful breakfast companion he got.
But Father prevailed. He switched from questioning me to counseling me. He mentioned all the positive things that would result from my sticking it out. Much later I could see that he was appealing to my “Irish” pride of never quitting.
All the while this conversation was going on, I was unaware of the time he was spending with me. But I was becoming aware of the attention he was getting from the other priests in the room and the staff. In my self-centered, pathetic state of mind, I was becoming more cognizant of my surroundings, and the priest was getting through to me. He helped me muster up the resolve to get through this crisis and not be a quitter. I left breakfast determined to give it one last try.
In a way the miracle I prayed for was happening, but I didn’t realize just how big a miracle God sent to me. The miracle, as I discovered years later, was that God sent me Father Ted that day. He didn’t send me to Boston College.
So, on each All Saints’ day I reflect on that event in my life. It was not fate, nor coincidence. It was a real-life answer to my prayers, and I remain so grateful to God and Father Ted for that encounter.
I made it through engineering school in the requisite four years with many struggles along the way. I also learned a life lesson: Perseverance is a virtue and quitting is a sign of weakness. More important, I learned firsthand what faith can do. That day clearly was the first day in the rest of my life. I didn’t know it then, and it wasn’t the miracle I prayed for, but it was the miracle God sent me, because it was the one that would have the most significant impact on my life.
In my four years at Notre Dame this would be the only time I ever met Father Ted. If this encounter wasn’t a miracle, then I guess I don’t know what a miracle is.
Thank you Father Ted for being there when I needed you the most.
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