A great bookie, a center found

Author: Kate Bird ’75M.A.


My most cherished memory of my father is seeing him rush out of his home study, finger in a book, eyes alight, reading a passage that enthralled him. I couldn’t always understand why he was so excited, but his enthusiasm was catching. And his desire to share endearing.

My father, Otto Bird, the founder of Notre Dame’s General Program of Liberal Studies, died June 5 at age 94.

I inherited Dad’s lifelong love of reading, beginning with the Sunday afternoons when he read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to my brother, Bill, and me. These introduced me to a world where good overcomes evil. (Only when I was older did I learn this isn’t always so.)

Occasionally though, Dad disappointed me. Once when I was sick, he asked if I’d like a book from the local library. I eagerly said yes. Dear Dad brought me Cervantes’ Don Quixote, his favorite. I was disgusted: My 13-year-old heart was set on a novel by Kathleen Norris, a romance writer Dad considered trash.

I put Don Quixote aside for many years until, knowing that my father attributed his conversion to Catholicism partly to it, I returned to it again. It was a hard slog even then. I read for more than 150 pages before comprehending why it had so influenced my father.

Perhaps, like the Don, Dad felt he was tilting at windmills in the struggle to raise eight kids with my mother, Eve, on a professor’s salary of $8,000, while giving birth himself to Notre Dame’s General Program of Liberal Arts (GP) in 1950 at the invitation of Rev. John Cavanaugh, CSC, the University’s president.

Dad’s professional quest met opposition from faculty convinced that the secular Great Books program, modeled after a curriculum established at the University of Chicago by the philosophers Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, had no place at Notre Dame. They thought it would weaken the University’s Catholic culture.

Dad had been on the staff that, under Adler’s direction, compiled the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World series. The concept behind the series and the academic program was to read and discuss — in small groups, with two teachers steeped in academic disciplines such as philosophy and literature — the texts of the great thinkers of Western culture.

As he wrote years later in Seeking a Center: My Life as a Great Bookie, Dad overcame the objections at Notre Dame by committing the GP to the philosophy and theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the featured thinkers. This commitment became the basis for courses devoted to the systematic study of those two disciplines. Father Cavanaugh and his successsor, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, gave the program their unwavering support, which is why it succeeded.

Today the GP, renamed the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS), still graduates between 30 and 70 majors each year. The director, Professor Stephen Fallon, says the program appeals to students because it exposes them to important ideas while also offering small classes and the opportunity to work closely with professors. Students take half their courses within PLS, going to other disciplines for electives or a second major. In addition, the canon now includes female authors and great works from the East such as China’s I Ching and India’s Bhagavad Gita.

Another memory I have of Dad is how much he loved Latin, the Church’s language for centuries. I learned just how much when he insisted I take four years of it in high school and two in college, noting that “knowing Latin is the best background for all romance languages.” Maybe he was right — but I lost all interest in learning Spanish or Italian.

For me, Dad’s passion for all things Catholic was most on display when I was an adult and we traveled to the Holy Land. There on a stifling day we walked from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives and on to Bethany. We traveled by bus to the Sea of Galilee, where we imagined ourselves among the disciples when Jesus spoke the Beatitudes.

My father was never a demonstrative parent. But whenever I was going through particularly difficult times, Dad’s hidden nurturing side came to my rescue — such as when I decided to end my first marriage and feared he’d try to dissuade me, good Catholic that he was.

He didn’t. And when I was petrified at the thought of supporting myself after being out of the work force for 20 years while I cared for my four children, it was Dad who encouraged me. “Nonsense, Kate, you have many arrows in your quiver,” he told me, alluding to my ND master’s degree in theology, while we sat in his study with its hundreds of books.

He then arranged an interview with an Encyclopaedia Britannica editor. I didn’t want the job as an indexer, but for the first time I recognized that an employer might take me seriously. I subsequently joined the Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C., as a writer and editor.

He had retired from Notre Dame in 1977 at 62 with a plan to plant a vineyard in southern Indiana on my brother Mike’s farm. Some years later he abandoned hope when his grapes produced inferior wine.

When Dad was in his 80s he suggested we collaborate on a book about Nathaniel Hawthorne, our favorite author. I agreed, but with misgivings. How could I carry the weight next to my scholarly father on any such project?

It worked out fine. We published From Witchery to Sanctity: the Religious Vicissitudes of the Hawthornes in 2005. Dad analyzed Hawthorne’s fascination with sin, repentance and redemption. I researched and wrote about his daughter, Rose, and her odyssey from marriage and motherhood to nursing poverty-stricken cancer patients. We wondered how Hawthorne, who never embraced organized religion, would have felt about his daughter converting to Catholicism after his death, becoming a nun and founding the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. Today the Church is recognizing her work as a candidate for sainthood.

As Dad’s health deteriorated, he had one further lesson to offer: How to grow old. I asked him once how he could face so courageously the stripping away of friends and family, health and independence.

He replied, “I never worry about things I can’t do anything about.”

Till the end, he marveled at God’s creations — the Seven Sisters in the night sky, the first crocus of spring. Most of all, he cherished the “little visitors” to his South Bend home: the downy woodpecker, the fat squirrels that mocked his cats from a safe distance, the chipmunks those cats routinely spared from the perils of overpopulation.

Every day he put out sunflower seeds and bread for their meals. When he no longer could, my sister Sarah continued that tradition.

I miss him.

Kate Bird is a freelance writer in Frederick, Maryland. Her five brothers, a son, a niece and a nephew are all General Program/PLS graduates.

Photo of Otto Bird with Father Cavanaugh, CSC, from University of Notre Dame Archives.