An old love letter to the University

Author: Matt Storin ’64

In the summer of 1960 I found at my local library in Springfield, Massachusetts, a book on Notre Dame. I had set out to look for one because I would enter Notre Dame as a freshman in a matter of weeks. Now, almost 54 years later, I know the school a bit better. I’ve been a student, a parent, a faculty member, an administrator, an advisory council member and, of course, an alumnus. So when I happened across another copy of the book, Notre Dame: the story of a great university by Richard Sullivan (Henry Holt and Company, 1951), I wanted to read it from that perspective.

Sullivan was first a student, arriving in 1926, and then a professor of English for decades. He died in 1981. I met Prof. Sullivan while I was a student and had the pleasure of telling him I had read the book. I recall him as a diminutive, cheerful, red-headed, pipe-smoking gentleman.

By Sullivan’s own description, the little volume — 243 pages — is neither a history nor even a comprehensive take on the school as its existed mid-20th century. It is more about the feel, tone and physical beauty of the place. It’s a love story. Read six decades later, it reveals some good markers on how the place has changed, and how not.

Campus: Of course, it was smaller. At one point, Zahm Hall is referred to as “one of the newer residence halls.” As was somewhat true in my own time as a student, the Main Building was probably more central to day-to-day experiences for students and faculty. More classes were then taught there and in it resided virtually every important office from Admissions to what would today be called the Career Center. In Sullivan’s own days as a student, some of his schoolmates still resided in the Main Building and the ground floor included a kitchen presided over by nuns and a communal bathroom. Few faculty members had offices in the early ’50s and Sullivan writes of a new faculty lounge, which from his description was located near the main doors on the second floor. As he writes about his perambulations around campus, it’s clear that many of today’s paved walkways were cinder paths (e.g. behind the Basilica). He recounts that getting cinders in one’s shoes was an annoyance.

Catholic character: Sullivan writes sparingly of this, noting that “no subject lends itself more easily to sentimental cooing than the religious activity of honest men.” (Notre Dame, remember, was all male in those days.) So he says simply, “this is a place permeated by religion as air is permeated by sunshine, which colors and warms and lights it.” He’s neither apologetic nor emphatic about ND’s Catholicism. This was long before culture wars visited these environs, so all that needed to be said was that the University was Catholic to its core. An odd fact considering today’s requirements: Sullivan said such non-Catholic students, such as there were, did not have to take theology courses. They were allowed to substitute a literature course. To my amusement, he also wrote, human beings being human beings, probably all sins known to man “are known here.”

Athletics: No sport but football is mentioned, and mostly for the atmospherics that surround a football weekend on campus and in South Bend. When the book was being written, Notre Dame rarely lost a game, so there wasn’t much need to brag about it, nor question its role.

The Founder: Sullivan’s prose reflects a much larger memory of Rev. Edward Sorin, CSC, than I believe most of us experience today. At the time the book was written, Sorin had been dead almost 60 years. There might still have been a few campus elders who had been minims — the primary school students from Sorin’s era. In just one example, the author notes that the Notre Dame’s regulations on behavior bore Sorin’s influence : “[The regulations] are a part of the inheritance, diluted by years, come down from Sorin, who would have considered a student off campus after dark as an affront to his personal honor.”

Finances: Notre Dame of that time is portrayed as a secure but financially modest institution, operating on a budget of $8 million annually and being not too successful in finding well-heeled benefactors. Today the University probably exceeds $8 million in sales of licensed products at the Bookstore and online — The Shirt alone sells around $2 million. Its $8 billion endowment ranks in the top tier of American universities, and it builds state of the art structures (as compared to the “newer” Zahm).

A few other isolated facts from the Sullivan account: ice skating on both lakes was common in winter, obviously before the power plant kept St. Joseph’s Lake from freezing. The narrower stairway on the east side of the Main Building was reserved for faculty, and a CSC brother stood on guard. In Sullivan’s student days the southern edge of campus was right in front of Father Sorin’s statue, which would nearly be touched by turning streetcars in The Circle of its time.

Sullivan ends his book with a fond description of the campus in late afternoon sunset (“Beyond the amber trees the Dome was shining all golden in the sun”). And having written of legendary figures of old, the earnest young male students of the time, and the wives from Vetville wheeling strollers with their babies (who would now be elders themselves), he evokes from the vantage point of more than a half century ago an image of an enduring institution and its sacred mission:

“One generation passeth away and another generation cometh.”

Matt Storin, now a senior project specialist in the Office of Student Affairs, previously taught in the journalism program and was the director of communications at Notre Dame.