A Turtle Hatchling Swims out to Sea

Author: Kit Loughran '16

I’m still in denial that my four years at Notre Dame are up. I’ve spent the past two post-grad weeks reflecting on my Notre Dame experience, wishing I had one more year. I think of the lifelong friendships I made, the six Saturdays I spent inside Notre Dame Stadium every fall — and the crazy professor who made me wear a funny-looking turtle hat and tell embarrassing stories about myself.

That’s John Weber, professor emeritus of marketing. “Weebs” — as we, his students and friends, call him — has been part of the Notre Dame family for more than 46 years, and part of mine for three. But with his outgoing personality, sense of humor, contagious laugh and beer-drinking ability, you might think he is even younger than we are.

Professor John "Weebs" Weber (right) and Turtle Clubbers, photo courtesy of the author.

Weebs taught me the most important lessons I learned at Notre Dame, and not in his Marketing Planning for Growth course, either — though I did somehow master the process of “solution selling.” I learned them through the Turtle Club.

The Turtle Club has three rules:

1) Have fun.
2) Be nice to everyone.
3) Think about turtles once in a while.

Started by Weebs’ grandchildren in 2009, the Turtle Club soon grew to include Notre Dame students. “I had half a dozen students out to my lake house that spring, and they saw the sign about the Turtle Club,” Weebs explains. “They said, ‘Can’t we join the Turtle Club?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”

Weebs and his grandchildren hunt for turtles every time they go to the lake house. The kids collect the creatures over a day or two, name them and play with them. Then their grandpa helps return them so they can all “hang out” another day.

So Weebs and that group of students piled into a boat, floated out onto the lake and caught some turtles with the same idea in mind. “After we went turtle hunting, I asked them, ‘Do you think the other students would like this?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, it’d be awesome!’”

That day Weebs saw how he could integrate his grandchildren’s simple vision into teaching students the subject he considers most important: social skills.

Turtles — by Weebs’ definition — aren’t those slow-moving reptiles enclosed by a hard outer shell, as I originally thought he meant. Instead, they’re “those people who make our lives go round.” So, club rule no. 3 — “think about turtles once in a while” — is really a reminder to acknowledge the people we encounter every day.

“We respect the little people around us,” Weebs says. “We say hello, we use people’s names. We don’t try to solve world hunger, but we’re nice to people.”

Since 2009, thousands of members have joined. “If I look at my notebooks and spreadsheet, we’ve had about 2,500 members at one time or another,” he says. Around 200 of these members are on campus. They participate in club events: the fall and spring golf outings, bowling night, tailgates, the Halloween party, the snow-tubing field trip, Bookstore Basketball and impromptu get-togethers with groups of students at Legends, Brothers, the Mendoza basement — wherever members can meet wearing their bright green Turtle Club t-shirts.

New members are inducted at almost every gathering. The induction ceremony includes a few seconds of “turtle talk.” Everyone babbles at once about anything or nothing at all, as if “they’re turtles with no ears,” Weebs explains. Then comes the Turtle Club handshake and a fist bump.

The most critical requirement for all club members is the nickname. Weebs’ nickname, “Brett Favre,” fits him because he retired from teaching three times and came back three times, he says, laughing.

Storytelling is at the heart of every Turtle Club event. To earn your nickname, you must tell one — and wear the turtle hat while doing so. “You tell new stories all the time, to meet other people and develop social skills,” he explains.

“The best stories are those that were embarrassing when it happened or some time ago, but it’s not so embarrassing anymore because time has passed. It’s about people getting over themselves and sharing.”

Over the years, Weebs has heard stories from students about breaking an ankle while doing the Running Man; falling asleep while eating Papa John’s; choosing to spell the word “cockroach” in a first-grade spelling contest; thinking the Toledo study abroad program is in Toledo, Ohio, not Toledo, Spain; belting out songs like Beyonce, but without her pipes; unknowingly sharing Goldfish crackers with Father John Jenkins on a God Quad bench; epically failing to sweet-talk a girl; jumping off a pier; and ordering an unhealthy amount of Taco Bell.

To earn my nickname, I told stories about the two summers I worked as a beverage cart girl at a golf course. I talked about the times golfers challenged me to tee off, and I accepted by hitting a perfectly straight drive onto the fairway, a much better shot than theirs every time. But I also mentioned the unfortunate day I crashed into a row of carts and popped the hubcap off in front of my boss and all the caddies.

“Cart Girl is just the perfect nickname for you,” Weebs replied.

He listens intently to these anecdotes — laughing, smiling, joking, prompting as we reveal the moments we consider so humiliating.

We ramble on, grateful for the encouragement. Maybe it’s the colorful turtle hat we have to wear, but suddenly these memories we’ve tried to bury have new meaning. As juniors and seniors, we spent a lot of time figuring out what we were going to do once we left Notre Dame. By emboldening us to tell stories, the leader of the Turtles has made that task much less daunting.

Weebs meets with students almost every day in the Mendoza café. He helps them edit resumes and cover letters, connect with Notre Dame contacts at various companies, decide which positions to apply for and practice their responses to interview questions. The conversation always shifts to weekend plans and how Weebs’ grandkids are doing.

He offers this job-hunting assistance to all of his students, tailoring the process to each student’s aspirations, talents and personality. When I received my job offer, my first phone call was to Weebs — I had to tell him even before I told my parents. “Let’s go to O’Rourke’s in 10 minutes!” he cried. “We’re celebrating!”

The day before graduation Weebs and I met for coffee with my parents — whom he refers to as Mr. and Mrs. Kit. “It’s been a joy getting to know, to teach and to work with Cart Girl as she gets her career started,” Weebs said.

That morning I suddenly realized the impact Weebs had on me. Sure, he provided innumerable tips on navigating the business world. But he wasn’t just teaching us how to send emails, rehearse leadership skills or interview well (“Remember, always get them talking 50 percent of the time,” he constantly reminded us).

He was teaching us how to connect with people and build relationships. He showed me the importance of taking the time to get to know people, just like he had made the effort to know me — by reading my weekly articles in The Observer, by meeting my family, by asking how my midterms went. Everyone has a story we should listen to, he would often say. By listening — whether the situation is professional or personal — we find shared experiences that connect us.

He was really showing me how to have fun with whatever I do — even in the classroom and workplace. As I step out into the world and my first job, I know it’s okay to embarrass myself because I can grow from those failures. I can laugh at them later — and not alone, but with others. Weebs was reminding me not to take myself too seriously.

We really can be like actual turtles, hiding inside our armor, timid of others and slow to express the best of ourselves. The truth is, we don’t have to be. I know that now. Weebs taught me to break out of my shell.

Former magazine intern Kit Loughran is a public relations/social coordinator at Cramer-Krasselt in Chicago.