To everyone who has received a certain letter from Notre Dame:
It was the first time I ever understood the power of a letter to change the course of a life. Maybe you know that feeling, too.
Waiting for that letter, some of you had no doubt it would bring good news that would lead to cheers from family and congratulations from friends. But I have to believe that most of us waited for that letter with more than a fair measure of anxiety — and at least a touch of dread. I was firmly in that second group.
Like you, I was a senior in high school at the time, still waiting to hear from the college of my dreams, and most likely your dreams, too — Notre Dame.
And again, maybe like you, it was not only my dream school, it was also the dream school of my close-knit, extended family. After all, I was the grandson of two Irish immigrants who had made their way to America, met at a dance, fell in love, married and started a family — all in the hope, the belief, that their choice to leave Ireland would lead to a better life for them and the generations of their family that would follow.
And when Notre Dame’s football team became a rallying point of pride for Irish and Catholic immigrants and their descendants a century ago, my family embraced the college they had never seen. No one in the family embraced it more than my dad. And because of him, I embraced it, too.
Looking back, the way our bond about Notre Dame formed is a combination of the comical and the touching. I wrote about it in my book, The Irish Way of Life:
“When I walked into my family’s home on that autumn Saturday afternoon, I felt the complete joy that comes from being six years old and having just spent a major part of the day tossing a football, jumping into piles of leaves, and tormenting the neighborhood girls with your best friend. So I had no hint that my life — and especially all my autumn Saturday afternoons from that moment forward — was about to change forever.
“The change started when I tried to pass through the living room and heard my father groaning in agony as he sat in his favorite chair listening to the radio. Moments later, he erupted from the chair and pumped his fist into the air as he shouted, “Atta baby!” The transformation of my normally-quiet father captured my curiosity so I sat and watched him as he nervously paced the floor. Then he slumped back into the chair as the radio announcer boomed, ‘You’re listening to Notre Dame football!’ So began my introduction to a heritage that’s both magical and maddening. After a while, I also started spending autumn Saturday afternoons inside, groaning, erupting and pacing with my dad.”
The desire of a son, as a small boy, to be like his father is nearly universal. Then comes an age — often in the teen years — when the son sees the flaws of the father, and the closeness can turn into a distance and even a desire to grow away from the man who gave you life, shaped you and always loved you. There were elements of that change in me toward my dad during my teenage years. But the connection to Notre Dame continued, and connected us through those years. And when I became a senior in high school, I applied to Notre Dame, thinking — or more accurately, wanting to believe — it was worth taking the shot. In a way, my dream was also my father’s dream for me. And for him.
Weeks and months of waiting for a response followed, and then it arrived on a spring day 50 years ago. When my mom handed me the envelope, she had already noticed the return address on it, “University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, 46556, Office of Admissions.”
My mom knew how much this dream meant to me, and so I knew she hoped the enclosed letter would bring me joy. Because that’s what mothers want for their children. But mothers also have their own dreams. And the thought of one of her five children potentially moving 600 miles away from home wasn’t her dream for me. It was a reason to cry, to mourn, as she would tell me years later.
Taking the envelope from her, I took a deep breath. If I said a prayer, I don’t remember. All I know is that I had said many prayers before that envelope arrived, and now the time for praying about this was over. It was time to open the envelope.
I still have the letter of congratulations and welcome from John T. Goldrick ’62, ’70M.A., ’84J.D., director of admissions. I still can see the joy that my mom had for me when I shared the news with her. I still can see both of us waiting for my dad in the living room of our working-class home, waiting to share the news with the broad-shouldered veteran of World War II and the Korean War who supported his family as a beloved, hard-working, elementary-school custodian. I can still see his look of pride and still feel his embrace of love. I still remember how the news was shared and celebrated as an extended-family triumph.
Later that summer, I would get on an airplane for the first time in my life and walk on the Notre Dame campus for the first time. Like you, the course of my life would change in so many ways because of my four years there — especially through the friendships I made and the moments we shared, the ways we were shaped by each other.
But those are stories for another day. I write today in the hope that you will look back across the years to a time when you waited for an envelope, when you were thrilled you became part of the Notre Dame family. As you do, I also hope you will think again of the people who helped lead you to the joy you felt that day, the people who shared in your joy that day.
Four springs have passed since my dad died in 2019. In the 46 years between my acceptance to Notre Dame and his death, we always talked after every Notre Dame football game and grew even closer through the years. A photo of the two of us sitting next to each other at a Notre Dame game is prominently displayed in my home.
This spring, my mom will turn 95. I will travel more than 600 miles to celebrate with her. As mothers usually are, she was right about me moving away from our family home.
Fifty springs have passed. The memories endure. So does the love for the people who shared them.
— John “Shawn” Shaughnessy, thankful member of the Class of ’77
John Shaughnessy is the author of When God Cheers, The Irish Way of Life, One More Gift to Give and Then Something Wondrous Happened. He’s also the assistant editor of The Criterion, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.