A Group Hug at 50

Author: Lisa Moore '77

Fifty. It’s an age that used to belong to our parents. Now it belongs to us. For some, it’s a rite of passage we’d rather forget; for others, it’s cause for celebration: We made it! At 50’s cusp, life folds on itself, reflecting on where it’s been and wondering where it’s going. Fifty is full of physical realities: Those faces and figures reflected in the mirrors of Walsh and Farley Halls aren’t quite as perky today. In fact, first thing in the morning, mine can look downright frightening.

That’s part of what Sheila O’Brien ‘77, ’80J.D., was thinking as she contemplated turning 50. She also imagined all the Notre Dame women from the class of 1977 turning 50 with her. They were among the pioneers of co-education at Notre Dame, the second class of undergraduate women to complete four years at the University. They had evolved into mothers, teachers, business leaders, doctors, lawyers and artists. O’Brien, an Illinois appellate court judge and the mother of three girls, decided her female classmates might like to share this momentous occasion.

O’Brien says the idea began at a lunch she had with classmates and fellow Illinois residents Ginger McGowan Bishop, whose mother had just died, and Janet Carney O’Brien. “We shared a delightful meal and talked about turning 50. Ginger said how much she appreciated the emails during her mother’s illness. I recalled that Eileen O’Grady [Daday] once received a ton of birthday emails, and suddenly the light bulb lit.”

With the help of classmate Patty Metcalfe Klepper and the power of the Internet, Sheila O’Brien set up a master list in January. It began with about 60 names and birthdays of women from the class of ‘77. "The messages started flying February 2 with Jane Neff-Brain’s birthday," she says. By April, the list had doubled.

If you’re on The List, when your birthday rolls around, it’s a blessing. This generous act of brilliance offers something magical, reassuring and beyond words. Terry Molony expressed this when she wrote:

I thank you so much for setting all this in motion! I am sitting here with tears in my eyes at all the greetings I’m getting from old friends and people I don’t even know!

The List reminds us of 1973, when we went off to Notre Dame, and 1977, when close to 400 women earned bachelor’s degrees. “Yearbooks are off the shelves all over the country,” O’Brien says with a laugh. She spends about 15 minutes three times a week sending out gentle e-reminders. As birthdays roll around, Listers flip through the “Senior” section of the Dome, chuckling at the hairstyles and the fashions and the way our eyes sparkled before we left Notre Dame.

Like a pebble in a pond, this generous act spawns circles of connections. As Ellen Keane Rutt described it:

Within the past four months it has put me in touch with dozens of women I last heard of or from in 1977; has informed me about the loss of several classmates; considerably brightened my own 50th birthday; inspired my husband to contact some of his ND friends; and led to a play date between my sons and the sons of a classmate. Through it, we have shared triumphs, tragedies, hope and plans for the future with long-forgotten and new friends.

The function of The List is expanding, too. At first it was just about birthdays. Soon it was also about remembrance. On Sunday, May 22, on the anniversary of our graduation, Father James Foster, CSC, ’77, ’94M.Div., celebrated a Mass in the Log Chapel in memory of the 11 women in our class who have died.

The List also is about mutual support. One participant is battling cancer, and Listers offered prayers. Another participant, Debbie McGraw, ran a half-marathon in La Jolla in April to celebrate her midcentury mark. Domer sisters sent encouragement and luck. “It wasn’t easy,” McGraw wrote afterward, “harder than I thought it would be to tell you the truth. Some of the time I kept going because I knew I was going to write this email.”

The List works because it is simple, accessible and free. “I am shocked at how much it has meant to people, and often they don’t even know why,” Sheila O’Brien says. “We’re just putting our arms around each other and saying, ‘Happy birthday.’” As Klepper notes, “They say that God works in mysterious ways, but I choose to think that, in this case, God works through email.”

Lisa Moore, a writer who lives in Harrison, Maine, turns 50 in August. She was editor of the 1977 Dome_ and lived with Sheila O’Brien in Walsh Hall at Notre Dame from 1973 to 1977_.