A chance encounter

Author: Don Clark '60

It was September, 1956, and I had just arrived at the South Bend bus station after a 28-hour Greyhound ride from NYC. My father took the South Shore down from Chicago, where he had been on one of his frequent business trips, and met me at the bus station. We collected my foot locker from the bus and took a cab to campus, which neither of us had ever seen. Freshmen orientation started the next day, but we could register and get room assignments a day early.

My dad had to leave after about two hours to get a flight back to Newark. When he got home, he asked my mother whether I was home. When she looked puzzled, he explained that I was so homesick when he left that he thought I might beat him home.

I went to a Catholic high school in Hackensack, New Jersey. Most of my friends who went to college had picked St. Peter’s in Jersey City and would be dayhops. I had been working in a drugstore for two years delivering prescriptions, had a yellow ’49 Studebaker convertible and was dating the captain of the cheerleading team. I had the world by the tail and did not want to let go. I wanted to join my friends at St. Peter’s.

My dad had other ideas. He had never finished college — he dropped out of Fordham to help support his mom when his dad died. I was his firstborn, and he felt strongly that living on your own, managing a checkbook, taking care of laundry and traveling were important parts of one’s education, so he wanted me to go away to school. I applied to Holy Cross and Notre Dame. I was denied by Holy Cross because I didn’t have enough extracurricular activities. (My high school was co-ed and taught by nuns, several of whom were in their 80s. We had no gym, no cafeteria and no athletic fields.) But I was accepted at Notre Dame.

The first night I met several other freshmen in Zahm Hall, and a group of us walked down to Frankie’s for pizza and Cokes. My homesickness disappeared that night. But it was not unusual to walk by the payphone in the lobby of Zahm and hear guys tearfully asking their moms to come get them. The rumor was that about 600 men of the 1,500-person freshmen class were gone by Thanksgiving. Notre Dame was tough!

Orientation started with the Student Manual, which everybody received. The inside cover had a map of South Bend with an “out of bounds” area where we were not permitted to go, like the art theatre with Brigitte Bardot unclothed and the red light district. Lights went out at 10, morning checks, ties and jackets for dinner, Saturday classes even on football weekends, no cars, strict rules on drinking and Zyggie’s meals. My brother, class of ’68, called the place “primitive” and his rules were more lenient than mine. My three children, classes of ’02 and ’06, cannot believe the stories.

My agreement with my father was that we would use my savings from the drugstore job and the proceeds from the sale of the Studebaker toward my tuition. When that ran out, he would take over. He also agreed to fund a checking account. The statements would be mailed to him and he would replenish the account as needed, but he also got to see the checks.

One of my roommates was on a Navy ROTC scholarship which paid his tuition, board and books, and gave him $50 a month spending money. Even so, he was constantly calling home asking for money. I decided I was not going to ask my family for spending money since they were funding tuition and board. I went to the dining hall because I had heard it was the only job on campus that paid cash. All others resulted in a credit against tuition. Zyggie hired me on the spot and assigned me to the “slop crew.” A team of four of us would clean tables when the students left. One would pick up glasses, the second dinner plates, the third picked up small plates, and the fourth had a “slop bucket” into which he cleaned the plates. (You wore your old shoes when you had the slop bucket.) There were no carts; we stacked glasses and plates on toppling trays and carried them to a shed in the back. We were expected to work all 21 meals weekly for $1.25 an hour, and we rotated tasks each meal. I have cerebral palsy and walk with a distinct limp. To Zyggie’s credit, he never questioned my ability to do the job, nor did the other guys on the team.

Another way I decided to save money was to hitchhike home to New Jersey. I couldn’t hitchhike back to school because the student manual had a rule about missing the first day or portion after a vacation. If you came by public transportation and they gave you a note, you were OK, but car or hitchhiking were not excused.

One vacation I paid a kid off-campus who had a car to take me to the Elkhart service plaza. The Indiana Toll Road forbade hitchhiking. Instead I would be nicely dressed, have on an ND jacket and a big ND decal on my suitcase, stand at the front door outside the restaurant and ask people if they had any room going east. The results were usually remarkable. The first time I did it I got home in 13 hours, and it’s over 700 miles! Truck drivers would let me sleep in the cab and sometimes buy me breakfast. Salesmen would ask me to drive while they slept. One ND grad student had me hold his baby in the back seat of a crowded Plymouth Coupe while he drove and his wife slept. The baby soiled its diaper, but they didn’t seem to mind. I did!

One time I had gotten to Harrisburg on the turnpike early in the morning. I asked a gentleman in a business suit if he had room, and he asked me if I knew the way into New York City. When I said I did, he asked if NYC was OK for me. I told him I could get a bus home from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, so he agreed to take me and wanted me to direct him to a particular Manhattan address.

As we drove the Pennsylvania and New Jersey turnpikes, he said he was a food chemist and was headed into NYC for a job interview. He told me some of the products his potential new employer marketed. One was a bread enrichment tablet that Continental Bakers dropped into their Wonder bread dough. This enabled them to claim on the wrapper “Builds strong bodies 8 ways!” They also made food colorings and additives and ingredients for pharmaceutical companies. The address to which he wanted directions was 90 Park Avenue. He told me he would be interviewing with the president of the company. I directed him to the address and told him there was a parking garage around the corner. As I pulled my bag out of the back seat I thanked him, shook his hand and said, “When you meet Mr. Clark, tell him you drove his son home from Notre Dame.”

I still remember the look on his face.

When Dad got home that night he said, “I had to hire him after he told me the story.”

A year later the chemist was terminated.