A Visit Before Dying: Notre Dame has had an enduring association with last wishes.

Author: Ed Cohen


For the first three quarters the coach and the bookies had their way.

On the cold November afternoon in Evanston, Illinois, Notre Dame’s first All-American sat shivering under a blanket on the bench as his teammates controlled Northwestern. His complexion was sickly, he ached all over, he had a bad cough. The coach wanted him to rest for the big game the following week against Michigan State to crown the “Champions of the West” for 1920. According to a teammate, the star player had fallen behind in his gambling debts, but his bookies had promised to give him a clean slate if he just sat out the Northwestern game.

For whatever reason, the star halfback ignored his respiratory problems and common sense and came off the bench in the fourth quarter, completing five of six passes for two meaningless touchdowns in a 33-7 win. In a few days he would be hospitalized. In less than a month he would be dead of strep throat and pneumonia, a fatal combination in those pre-antibiotic days.

During the last visit from his coach, Knute Rockne, the dying George Gipp famously reassured him, “I’ve got to go Rock. It’s all right. I’m not afraid.” Gipp, who was 25 and whose team record for career rushing yards would stand for more than half a century, then peered into the future.

“Sometime, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock. But I’ll know about it, and I’ll be happy.”

Rockne would tell the story to his Notre Dame team eight years later in a speech in the Yankee Stadium locker room before a game against heavily favored Army. The Irish, injury-depleted but suffused with Gipp ghost power, triumphed 12-6. Over the years many writers have suggested that the story was a fabrication of a shrewd motivator, but Rockne, who would die tragically himself three years later in a plane crash, always insisted it was true.

The “Gipper Speech” is without doubt the most famous dying-wish story associated with Notre Dame. But over the years many people facing life-threatening illnesses have longed for a Notre Dame encounter of one kind or another. To watch one last game in Notre Dame Stadium. Make one last visit to the Grotto. Even to be admitted as a student.

What all the wishers have shared is a belief in the Notre Dame mystique, a desire to connect with it, to get there somehow, be it for the thousandth time or the first. In at least some instances, happily, the visit turns out not to be their last.

Kurt Weiss first came to Notre Dame in 1983 from Pittsburgh when he was 9. He helped his sister Gretchen move into Walsh Hall as a freshman. When the job was done the family had some quiet time to look around, watch the squirrels play, hang out at the Grotto. He felt an instant connection.

“I knew it was a place I wanted to spend as much of my life as I could.” As he grew older Weiss became determined to follow in his sister’s footsteps, which included playing with the marching band. But as a high school freshman he was diagnosed with bone cancer in his leg. The disease later spread to his lungs.

“I was a pretty sick kid,” he recalls, quickly adding that he never thought he was going to die. Which made it all the more unnerving when the Make-A-Wish Foundation contacted him. Like most people, the teen thought the charitable organization only granted dying wishes. Actually it seeks to enrich the lives of children facing life-threatening illnesses and their families. Many wish-makers recover.

When illness forced Weiss to give up playing football and other sports, he focused on music. He thus made his wish a two-parter: a new silver tenor saxophone, and the right to play with the Band of the Fighting Irish at whatever bowl game Notre Dame would be invited to following the 1989 season (it turned out to be the Orange Bowl). Although his leg condition prevented him from marching, he was able to practice with the band for several days and play from the stands. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

After returning home he underwent two total knee replacements and, later, experimental chemotherapy, but he says he was more determined than ever to achieve his college goal. “During my treatments, I focused on getting into Notre Dame instead of feeling sorry for myself.”

The chemotherapy worked, and Weiss eventually was admitted to Notre Dame. Despite continuing leg problems that forced doctors to amputate part of one leg in 1996, he marched with the band and was elected band president his senior year. He graduated in 1997.

Today he and his wife, Laura Michelle Weiss ’99, have a son, and Weiss is in his fourth year of medical school. He plans to specialize, appropriately, in orthopedics or pediatrics with a subspecialty in oncology.

Five years after Weiss’s trip to the Orange Bowl, Joe Collins of Placentia, California, near Los Angeles, enjoyed a similar Make-A-Wish experience when the foundation brought him and his family to campus the weekend of a home game against Air Force. Like Weiss, Collins had been diagnosed with bone cancer in his leg as a high school freshman. Like Weiss, he dreamed of returning as a student. And like Weiss, he got in and is now cancer free. The Californian graduated last May with a degree in marketing and film and television and is looking for a job in advertising.

Early admission to ND

Of his campus visit, made when he was 14 (it was the first time anyone in his family had seen Notre Dame), he says simply, “It was incredible. The campus was beautiful, but what I didn’t realize, what really hit me was the fact that everybody was just incredibly, super nice.”

Weiss’s and Collins’s stories are eerily similar to that of Kerri Castello from Mobile, Alabama, an honor student and former captain of her high school volleyball team. Five days into her junior year of high school she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her shoulder. Soon thereafter she began a long series of treatments at Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Like Weiss and Collins, she focused on keeping up with her studies as she battled cancer, knowing how competitive Notre Dame admissions have become (in each of the last two years the University has turned away more than 200 high school valedictorians). Like Collins, she had no family connection to Notre Dame, had never set foot on campus. But she was a committed Catholic, spiritual director of the youth council at her church, and liked what she read about the retreats. She was thinking about studying theology.

Qualifying for admission turned out to be no problem. The first patient at Saint Jude’s ever to take the ACT while undergoing chemotherapy, she scored 32 out of a possible 36, putting her in the 99th percentile of college-bound students. An early-decision applicant to the University, she was designated a Notre Dame Scholar, meaning she rated among the top 20 percent of all admitted students.

Her essay and a letter from her high school described what she was going through with her illness, and the information eventually reached Dan Saracino ’69, ’75M.A., Notre Dame’s chief of admissions. Saracino contacted her family and school and learned that Kerri’s condition was deteriorating. Worried that she might not live to read her acceptance letter, he expedited the admissions process and overnight-mailed her the letter December 1 (about 10 days ahead of the normal schedule) along with a Notre Dame sweatshirt.

The admissions chief would stay in touch with the young woman and her family as she continued to battle the cancer throughout the winter months and in the spring decided to bring them to campus.

Kerri was too ill to travel by commercial plane, so Saracino asked alumnus and benefactor Jerry Hank ’51 to fly her and her family up on his private jet. Hank didn’t hesitate to put the plane at their disposal, and Kerri came to campus with her parents and brother in March of this year. In addition to touring campus, they met with new football coach Ty Willingham and with Father Hesburgh, who said a special Mass in the chapel adjacent to his office in the library. She sat in on a theology class and stayed a night in Farley Hall with a student she knew from Mobile.

Kerri Castello’s story doesn’t end like those of Kurt Weiss and Joe Collins. She rallied following her visit and soon thereafter made a pilgrimage to the Grotto of Saint Bernadette in Lourdes, France (on which Notre Dame’s Grotto is modeled). But her condition rapidly declined, and on April 30 she died at home.

“My memory will always be her on a golf cart going [around campus] as fast as she could,” says Saracino, who spoke at her memorial Mass in Mobile. “Her comment to Ty and me was that ‘I’m not afraid of dying. I’m just afraid of not living.’ She said there’s a difference.”

Lora Castello says her daughter always believed she would beat the illness.
“You hear these stories about people who die, who just go willingly. She felt she had too much to live for and the fact that she’d been accepted to Notre Dame was the major reason she felt that way,” her mother says. “I can’t say that Kerri even in her last words was giving up. It was still ‘I’m waiting for my miracle.’ I think Notre Dame had a lot to do with that.”

As it turned out, Kerri Castello’s association with the Notre Dame family didn’t end with her death. The day before she died she decided to donate her body to science in hopes of helping with the search for a cure. Mobile opthalmologist Richard Duffey ’79 had treated Lora Castello for an eye injury suffered in a chemical explosion years earlier, and he was friends with the orthopedic surgeon who first diagnosed Kerri’s cancer.
Duffey regularly performs corneal transplants, and three days after Kerri’s funeral he received a fax with information on the donor of a pair of corneas that had just become available. They were from an18-year-old who had died of osteocarcoma (bone cancer) — Kerri. He successfully transplanted one of the corneas; the second went to a colleague in Birmingham who had an emergency. That transplant also was successful.
Duffey and other members of the Notre Dame Club of Mobile are raising money to establish a memorial scholarship in Kerri’s name to benefit students admitted to Notre Dame from the Mobile area. To contribute or learn more, write to Duffey at 2880 Dauphin Street Mobile, AL 36606, phone 251-470-8928, fax 251-470-8924 or e-mail duffey@duffeylaser.com.

Kerri Castello’s story may remind many Notre Dame followers of Scott Delgadillo. The 14-year-old from San Diego inspired the Irish football team and fans two years ago when he spoke at the pep rally before a home game against Purdue. Like Weiss, he’d been granted a visit to campus by Make-A-Wish. In his case, he was battling leukemia.

Childhood attachment

“I’ve been sick for nine months, and through those nine moths I’ve had a lot of times when I’m feeling just terrible,” the boy told the packed Joyce Center arena, his head bald but his voice robust. He said “positive thinking” had helped him get through the treatments. “And what inspired me a lot is this University and how I know I’m going to come back here one day.”

The crowd cheered wildly. Then-coach Bob Davie said that in 25 years of coaching he had never met anyone like Scott Delgadillo. A month after the pep rally, when Davie learned that leukemia had resurfaced in the 14-year-old’s bone marrow, the coach wrote a letter to The Observer asking people to pray and think positively on Scott’s behalf. The e-mail and cards and letters poured into the hospital where the boy was being treated — from students, employees, alumni, subway alumni. Some sent Notre Dame mementos.

Sadly, another relapse on Christmas Day prevented Scott from flying to Boston for a planned bone marrow transplant from his brother, and on January 29, 2001, he passed away.

No one — not even his family — knew how or why the young Californian became so attached to Notre Dame. Like Kerri Castello he was Catholic, but like her there was no family connection. His mother, Carmen Delgadillo, says his interest began when he was 4 and started watching Notre Dame football on TV. From then on every birthday he asked for a Notre Dame sweatshirt or other article of clothing. When contacted by Make-A-Wish, his initial request was “guaranteed admission to Notre Dame.”

One time when he was 12, Carmen Delgadillo remembers, the family was eating in a restaurant and Scott was wearing a Notre Dame shirt. An elderly man near their table asked the boy if he knew anything about Notre Dame or if he was he wearing the shirt just because he liked it. Scott said he knew a lot about it and went on to recite statistics about the school and football team. Scott told the elderly man it was his dream to go to college there.

Carmen Delgadillo says the man explained that his father had attended Notre Dame in the days of Knute Rockne. “As we were, leaving he stopped Scott and said ‘I hope your dream comes true.’ The following year he got sick.”

The week after Scott’s death his body was flown to Notre Dame for a special memorial Mass in the Basilica. He was eulogized by, among others, Basilica Rector Peter Rocca, CSC, ’70, ’73M.Th. The priest recalled the letter Scott had written to campus thanking everyone for their support following Davie’s appeal. Scott had said the support and Notre Dame were “two of the biggest things” that kept him fighting and that one day he would return “and this illness will just be a thing of the past.”

“In some ways,” Rocca concluded, “Scott got his wish. His illness is now passed and he has returned to his beloved Notre Dame — not to enroll as a student but to graduate to life eternal. . . . We commend this brave young Christian to the God who created him. And thank God for blessing us with his presence and inspiration.”

Loyalty to Notre Dame, especially the football program, sometimes leads to extraordinary acts of persistence and devotion. For years polio victim Frederick Snite ’31, whose family donated the Snite Museum, attended home games lying flat on his back in an iron long that kept him alive. The device traveled in a trailer that during games would be parked at the north end of the stadium behind the goal posts. An angled mirror above Snite’s head allowed him to watch the action. He died in 1954 at the age of 44 but not before marrying and having three daughters.

Notre Dame’s athletics and public affairs offices regularly field calls, letters and now e-mail requesting football tickets, purportedly on behalf of sick and dying loved ones. Usually the requests come from the offspring of non-alums who say their parent has never been to campus, much less to a game. They need the tickets now because they’re afraid their loved one might not make it to next season. Jennifer Laiber ’90, ’01MSA, administrative assistant in the Office of Public Relations and Information, says normally the office is unable to accommodate such requests, even if they are legitimate. They just receive too many.

On March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day, 1998, the University Archives received a call from desperate nurses at the Saint Joseph Care Center in South Bend. One of the center’s residents, 100-year-old Albert A. Uebbing ’20, had taken a turn for the worse. Uebbing was a loyal alum who would perk up whenever he heard the Notre Dame Victory March. The nurses wanted to sing it to him one last time, but nobody knew all the words. The Archives staff faxed the lyrics. Albert Uebbing passed away later that day.

For years people have tried scattering loved ones’ ashes on the football field or elsewhere on campus in hopes of giving them a permanent presence at Notre Dame. The University forbids this practice for reasons partly sacramental, partly horticultural but with incomplete success.

The daughter of Louie Kubiak found a way around the rule. Kubiak had worked for years at the campus golf course as a starter, the person who spaces out groups teeing off at the first hole. Like Fred Snite, he was a devoted Fighting Irish fan. When he passed away in 1996, Sharon Nyberg, a retired secretary from the RecSports department, had an idea she felt certain would have delighted her dad. She arranged to have his ashes mixed into the mortar being used to install facing brick on the stadium addition. In this way Louie Kubiak literally became a fixture at Notre Dame home games.

A kind service

Another posthumous Notre Dame experience involves Leo Garland ’31 of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border. The alumnus, who like Snite graduated the year Rockne was killed, died March 6, 2000. He was such a loyal fan that he was buried in a navy blue blazer with his 50th class reunion emblem and cap. At the last minute a friend and fellow fan placed into the casket a large button that played the fight song when tapped. The lid of the casket was engraved “Leo Garland, Notre Dame, 1931.”

After a memorial Mass at the Church of Notre Dame in Hermitage, Garland’s body was taken to Chicago, where he would be laid to rest beside his first wife. A director of the family-owned McGonigle funeral home in Hermitage left in the middle of the night for the long drive to Illinois. Leo’s widow, Betty Garland, decided not to make the long trip for what was scheduled to be a brief ceremony at the grave.

At about 9:30 the next morning, she received a call from the driver of the hearse.

“He said, ‘When was the last time Leo was at Notre Dame?’ I told him I couldn’t remember. He said, ‘Never mind. I just drove Leo through the campus and stopped at the Grotto and lit a candle for him.’ I simply cried.”

Leo Garland doesn’t figure to be the last alumnus given a final lap around campus or visit to the Grotto or who will yearn to make one last pilgrimage to the Cave of Candles. If Notre Dame is the closest thing the United States has to a national Catholic university, the Grotto may be the closest there is to a national Catholic shrine. It’s the place to which Domers, overwhelmingly Catholic, seem to feel most spiritually connected. As Hesburgh puts it, “All alumni are a shade or so like Tom Dooley.”

Dooley, who studied at Notre Dame for three years before entering medical school, gained fame in the 1950s as “Dr. America,” the founder of a series of medical care facilities in Laos. In November 1960, he lay confined to a bed in a hospital in Hong Kong, suffering from melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that had spread to his lungs, liver, spleen, heart and brain. Though weighted down on his back (he was later fitted with a brace to support his disintegrating vertebrae), he contrived a way to operate a typewriter and composed a poetic letter to Hesburgh, then president. The letter can be read today in front of the statue near the Grotto showing Dooley with two young children.

In the letter Dooley contemplates his own mortality — “I have monstrous phantoms . . . as all men do” — but says he exorcizes them with prayer. He says he knows that prayers from Southeast Asia reach heaven as surely as those expressed anywhere else, yet he longs to be back at the Grotto.

“Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.”

Dooley never saw the Grotto again. On Christmas night he began a two-day flight from Bangkok to New York, where he was immediately admitted to a New York hospital. On January 17, 1961, Dooley’s 34th birthday, Hesburgh was giving a talk at an education convention in Denver when he received a call from Dooley’s brother apprising him of the situation. The priest flew to New York and administered last rites. Dooley died the next night.

Now 85, Hesburgh says there is no simple explanation for the connection people feel to the Grotto. “It’s like all spiritual places. It’s kind of mysterious,” he says, adding, “anybody who tries to describe Notre Dame in purely naturalistic terms is going to fall on his face.”

Perhaps the reason so many people’s thoughts turn to Notre Dame when facing death and eternity is the eternal character of the campus. Celebrities grow old and die, buildings burn or crumble, great companies go bankrupt, but it’s hard to imagine there not being the Golden Dome, the Basilica, the lakes, the Grotto. Especially the Grotto.

Talking on the phone from his Philadelphia apartment while trying to keep his toddler son, Connor, from playing with an electrical cord, cancer survivor Weiss thinks back to his first time exploring the campus as a child on his sister’s move-in day.

“Some people, they go and they sit at the Grotto and something magical happens to them. I was one of those people.”

Since the mid-1980s the week before commencement, Senior Week, has included an organized Seniors’ Last Visit to the Grotto, complete with prayer and speeches. In his “Charge to the Class” at last May’s “Last Visit,” Executive Vice President Timothy R. Scully, CSC, ’76, ’79M.Div., commented that the title of the event was not only melodramatic but inaccurate. This would surely not be their last time. Candles will be lit at the Grotto “by generation after generation of Notre Dame’s children until the end of time,” he declared.

“So if you travel far from here, or feel distant as times grows chill, return to this place, by your mind’s eye. It will be here, reaching out for you.”

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.