A Winter’s Tale in Shades of Gray

Author: Matt Storin ’64

Editor’s Note: February 2 was a rare snow day on campus, but winter? Winter makes a regular appearance around here. In our latest Magazine Classic from 2009, Matt Storin ’64 explores the routines and rhythms of the season that help the Notre Dame community prepare for and endure the “bleak and monochromatic moments in the depths of a northern Indiana winter.”


From spring through fall, the beauty of the Notre Dame campus can stun first-time visitors.

In January, well . . . it ain’t necessarily so. Though the Dome and the Basilica project strength and spirituality year round, Notre Dame has its bleak and monochromatic moments in the depths of a northern Indiana winter.

When leaves are turning or tulips are blooming, campus is like a movie set. Brilliant colors punctuate lavish natural backdrops. A film director might feature the Marching Band or sons and daughters in caps and gowns. Football and commencement are the true names of Notre Dame’s high seasons: All the plantings and trimmings are aimed at those peak events. But come late November, the “set” is struck. Notre Dame tucks in for a season most alumni endured as students and never wanted to see again.

Winter brings the November-to-April “permacloud” and a biting wind. As one University employee remarked to me last winter, “No matter what direction you walk on campus, it seems like the wind is always in your face.” Then there’s lake-effect snow, and the occasional system snow, to whiten the ground much of the time.

It puts one in mind of this old joke:

Q: What did Father Sorin say when he arrived in the late fall of 1842?

A: “We’ll just stay here till the weather gets better.”

To be fair to the founder, his first impression was enthusiastic. In his famous letter to Father Basil Moreau, CSC, of Dec. 5, 1842, he wrote, “Everything was frozen over. Yet it all seemed so beautiful.”

The beauty of the campus, covered in white beneath a clear blue sky, is not to be disputed. But to those who live here, those days can seem rare indeed.

The “permacloud . . . is very real,” says local meteorologist Rick Mecklenburg of WSBT-TV. Winds from the west or northwest blowing across Lake Michigan make South Bend notably cloudier than Chicago. Snowier, too: Mecklenburg reports that while Chicago averages 42 inches of snow each winter, South Bend typically gets about 77.

There can be little question that winter is part of what informs the Notre Dame experience. In trying to explain Domers’ familial bonds to an outsider, I sum it up in one word: “February.” For if January is the coldest month, February is the most isolating. The diversions of the holidays are forgotten and spring is just a rumor.

Cabin fever

Students can get stir crazy. Peter Newton ’73 remembers the snowball fights on the Main Quad, “table-diving” along the length of the huge table in the O’Shaughnessy lobby and “borrowing” an ironing board from Lyons Hall, ripping off the legs and using it as a surfboard in Howard Hall.

Other alums, unwilling to be identified even 45 years later, recall somehow getting into the stadium on a gray (what else?) Sunday in January 1963 to play a game of tackle football without pads. It was not as dangerous as it might seem, they reported, given that the field was covered by two inches of icy snow and traction was nearly impossible.

For some, winter creates more serious problems. At least a small number of students are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), reports Dr. Wendy Settle, a staff psychologist at University Counseling Center. Though only a few seek treatment at Saint Liam Hall, the home of the UCC and University Health Services, it’s suspected that many more suffer from the problem.

Last February, Dr. Settle set up a table in North Dining Hall to increase awareness, and more than 50 students stopped by. SAD is usually characterized by increased sleep and increased appetite, the reverse of conventional depression traits.

Settle coordinates use of the Inner Resources Room in Saint Liam where, among other treatments, students can use light therapy — a bright panel that generates 10,000 lux, the rough equivalent of full daylight — to alleviate SAD symptoms.

But in the real outdoors, there is no escape from the cold. In January, the coldest month, the daily high temperature averages 30 and the low 13, according to weather.com, the website of The Weather Channel.

Older alumni insist the campus was colder when they were students. Is this just generational bravado? No, according to meteorologist Mecklenburg. “There was a period in the 1960s and 1970s that was colder than it is now. This cold air extended into the early ’80s.” But he notes that this is part of an ongoing cycle. The warmest decade on record was the 1930s.

Of course, cold weather apparel has improved. When Amy Meyers ’07 thinks of winter at Notre Dame, “I think The North Face. It seems that every student at Notre Dame wears the same winter coat.” Still, some brave or foolhardy students wear a hooded sweatshirt and Bermuda shorts on all but the most frigid days.

One of the few joys of the northern winter is the blast of warmth when entering a well-heated building. Thanks to the seven miles of steam tunnels that crisscross the campus, Notre Dame is efficiently heated from the central power plant on Holy Cross Drive near Saint Joseph Drive. The tunnels serve nearly all buildings except a few on the fringes of campus such as Ave Maria Press and the Eck Tennis Pavilion, which have their own systems. The plant burns 80,000 tons of coal annually, generating 85 percent of the total heat output as well as about half the campus’ electricity, says Paul Kempf, Notre Dame’s director of utilities.

Kempf says the first calls for heat come as early as mid-September from the older, less-insulated buildings. Some newer buildings generate a modicum of heat from their own technology infrastructure, enough to ward off an early fall chill. But by November 1 the heat is fully on. Keen campus observers spot the shift by the sudden browning of the grass over the steam tunnels, which does not fully revive until sometime in May.

With the final home football game played, the campus population reduces to what might be called its permanent settlement of students, staff and faculty, a community of about 15,000. Because Notre Dame is in the far western reaches of the Eastern Time Zone, early risers go to work or class in darkness, the sun coming up in December and January well after 8 a.m. and setting at about 5:30 p.m.

To some among this hardy population, it can seem like we’re charged with maintaining the enterprise so the rest of the Notre Dame family can find that movie set still here in the warm months.

Apart from the realities of the thermometer, the first clear sign of what lies ahead comes when the fountain at the Peace Memorial is shut down. The reflecting pool at the Hesburgh Library is also drained, which brings us to the 31 full-time employees of landscape services who spend most of their waking hours outdoors and do the jobs that keep campus safe and protect its beauty for spring revival.

A (large) grain of salt

Working out of a building on the far northern edge of campus behind Ave Maria Press, and under the guidance of interim Superintendent Pat McCauslin, they keep the sidewalks and roads plowed and de-iced at all hours — even when the campus is virtually shuttered at Christmas. But before any of that happens, they take prudent steps to protect and nourish campus flora so that the beauty will be preserved in the new year.

In a sense, winter for McCauslin’s crew begins each year in August, when they begin taking bids for road salt. This year they’ve got 400 tons. Trucks arrived in early October to fill the University’s pair of 3,000-gallon tanks with liquid “ice melter” — landscapers sprayed a total of 37,000 gallons a year ago — which McCauslin notes is environmentally safe and interacts well with the salt.

Leaf pick-up is an enormous task. Crew chief Terron Phillips says the job takes about four weeks. The leaves are ultimately mulched and stockpiled for re-use in the planting cycle. The work is coordinated with the mechanized spreading of fertilizer — some 44,000 pounds of the 24-8-12 blend of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that prepares the soil for spring.

Meanwhile, in late October, groundskeepers Annie Pugh, Cheryle Thompson and Matt Brazo are hard at work pulling out annual flower beds all over the 1,200-acre campus. After Bill Willard and Jeff Coates rototill the soil, these landscapers begin planting — by hand — nearly 60,000 bulbs, imported from the same company in Holland since the 1930s, putting bone meal into each hole and burying the promise of beautiful tulips, daffodils and hyacinths until spring. The beds are also soaked with about 100 gallons of seaweed extract. Pugh, Thompson and Brazo typically decide what goes where, although they observe certain traditions, such as planting “King’s blood tulips” around the statue of Christ in front of the Main Building.

Around the same time, Coates oversees the “blowing out” of miles of underground pipes that make up the irrigation system for the quads and the other acres of grass. Those pipes have to be protected against freezing so that the University’s 90,000 nozzles will be ready to keep campus green beginning in the earliest weeks of spring.

At Notre Dame Stadium and around the rest of the athletic complex, Dan Brazo and his athletic grounds crew perform similar tasks. The sand-based expanse of grass inside the stadium receives its annual shower of winterizing chemicals and is covered with a “grow tarp,” which Brazo describes as a loose weave of synthetic material that allows sunlight and precipitation to flow through and promotes root growth by keeping the turf temperature 10 degrees warmer than the ambient air. The grass infield at the Eck Baseball Stadium gets similar treatment. And the pitcher’s mound and home plate area of the dirt softball infield at Melissa Cook Stadium are covered with tarps.

By the end of November, the stadium’s water is drained and the hospitality and retailing tents have come down, along with the pennants that rim the stadium during the season.

As the freeze sinks in around campus, McCauslin stays in regular touch with a Chicago area weather consultant to alert him to oncoming storms. Crews are on round-the-clock call to run 25 vehicles of various descriptions, some with plows for the roads and parking lots, some with huge, rotating brooms to sweep the sidewalks. Even over holiday break, the crews are out as soon as the snow begins to fall. “Plenty times we’ve missed Christmas Eves, getting the campus ready for Midnight Mass in the Basilica,” McCauslin notes. On New Year’s Day 2008, the call went out at 2 a.m. to clear the roads and walks.

Keeping those paths clear is vital, because the core life of Notre Dame — teaching, researching, learning, praying, thinking — proceeds at full speed in winter, especially with the start of a new semester. One might say it is even enhanced by the relative absence of extracurricular distractions.

Such is life in winter at Notre Dame. The crowds are back home. The colors have faded to browns, whites and grays. The show is over, but the cast is still here.

Matt Storin retired as associate vice president for news and information in January 2006.