Last November, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I gave my 150th or so talk to Notre Dame alumni clubs. I was only 29 years late.
My tardiness that night is one of many stories that grew out of more than three decades of speaking at Universal Notre Dame Nights (later, Notre Dame Celebrations). These annual forays of University staff and faculty to alumni clubs nationwide were started almost 80 years ago as a way of providing some balance to the media-driven football image of the University. In fact, the first Universal Notre Dame Night was broadcast in the early days of radio, emanating on April 24, 1924, from the old Oliver Hotel in South Bend, where the Saint Joseph Valley Club had gathered. Intended for 40 cities in 20 states, the broadcast was marred by weather and by interference from more powerful stations. By 1938, however, the evening was being carried on NBC’s Red Network, introduced by Irish tenor John McCormack.
The radio broadcast eventually morphed into talks by University representatives appearing in person before alumni clubs across the country. The tradition remains unique in American alumni relations, an annual sounding of the grass roots by an institution with graduates known for their proprietary feeling about their alma mater.
It was back in spring 1972 that I arrived at the mountaintop Johnstown airport as an assistant director of public information on one of my earliest UND Night trips. No one was there to meet me. I called the club president, Dr. George Katter ‘41, at home. "You didn’t get the word from the Alumni Office?" he said apologetically. “We had to cancel the event.” Nonplussed, Katter said he would round up the five local high school seniors who had been accepted for the coming fall at Notre Dame, and we all would go out to dinner. That’s how I first met Gene Berry, T. Michael Crowley, Ed Dropcho, D.C. Nokes and Ralph Trofino. The Johnstown Five received degrees in 1976. Four went on to earn J.D.s, and Dropcho was graduated from medical school. Two of them were in the audience last November when, as a retired associate vice president of University relations, I finally gave my talk to the Johnstown Notre Dame alumni club.
With the possible exception of Emil T. Hofman, emeritus professor of chemistry, I think I have done as many UND Nights as anyone alive, and I remain an advocate of a communications vehicle periodically questioned as an anachronism in the day of the Internet. But UND Nights are personal. Every year, in climates good and bad, Notre Dame cares enough to send “a live someone” to give graduates an oral snapshot of the University and — equally important — answer their questions about a place close in their memories.
My first talk to alumni was a 1968 communion-breakfast format in Flint, Michigan, where I first met Jack Kean ‘51. The train cost me $4.95 to Durand, where Jack met the train. That began a long friendship with him and his wife, Anne, which included a stint for Jack on the national Alumni Board. He eventually came down with an Alzheimer’s-like illness, and Anne would bring him to campus, where visits to the Grotto and walks around the lakes would touch his clouded mind in a way nothing else could. One September I returned — this time in the University’s plane — to eulogize Jack at his funeral in Fenton, Michigan, not far from where he had met me at the train 27 years before.
At no time was the personal visit more important than during the Great Days of Student Unrest. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, going out to talk to restive alumni deserved battle pay. I recall one particularly uncomfortable evening somewhere in Ohio when I left the microphone and walked to the opposite end of the room. I peered silently at the vacated lectern and then commented, "I just wanted to see if a bull’s-eye was there." The audience laughed and settled down.
Although the themes of these yearly talks with alumni vary, there are perennials. I recently came across my prepared remarks for UND Nights in 1971. They were titled, “Notre Dame: How Catholic Is It?” and could be delivered today without changing a word.
The obligatory cocktail reception preceding dinner often served as an informal question period. People with athletics-related questions often posed them over drinks, rather than after dinner. And the reception is where the admissions queries came. On one such occasion, an alumnus-parent presented me with the outstanding scholastic credentials of his son, who had been denied admission. I gave my standard answer, “I’ll have admissions check on your son’s file, and someone will get back to you.” When I contacted the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, I received an unusual explanation — and one that could not be conveyed to the parents. During his admissions interview, the young man had pleaded in confidence, “Please turn me down. I do not want to go to Notre Dame, but I can’t bring myself to disappoint my father by telling him so.”
A more positive admissions-related story happened in Savannah, Georgia, where I entered the private dining room of a restaurant and found myself with the only other early arrival. This young woman was trying to decide between admissions offers from one of the Seven Sisters and Notre Dame, and financial aid was crucial. I was so impressed with her poise and maturity that I called the admissions office when I returned to campus and urged them to be generous with our student aid package. Maria Carolina Duque will be graduated from the Mendoza College of Business in May — and her sister, Maria Paula, is two years behind her.
The most bizarre incident in memory occurred in a Pennsylvania city. It shall go nameless, although I remember it vividly. The emcee for the evening began the post-prandial program with a long joke that everyone in the audience, including the priest sitting next to me at the head table, realized early on was heading to an off-color punch line. There was only one thing to do. I reached out with my right foot and disconnected the mike cord. This sudden distraction was enough to bring the young man to his senses, and the punch line was never delivered.
As the University has become more complex, going, as it were, from a family-owned business to a multinational corporation, more time has been invested in preparing UND Night speakers. A detailed briefing paper now provides a uniform factual background on such areas as the academic landscape, service-learning, admissions and financial aid. I also had my own pattern of preparation. On the road I read The New York Times for national news, and on arrival I read the local paper. It was a sign of respect if one came to conversations with some knowledge of burning local issues, such as a teachers’ strike. I always asked the local host if there were some particular Notre Dame issue galvanizing the club. If so, I tried to address it in my presentation. It also helped to avoid being ambushed in the Q&A period.
The environments varied widely. I have spoken in the opulence of a Santa Barbara, California, country club (and learned the town had a homeless center). In the same state, I have greeted graduates in the back room of a Basque bar in Bakersfield, a place that served “mountain oysters” (sheep gonads) as an appetizer. In Long Island I had to take the microphone between gigs of a dance band. “When do I know when to stop speaking?” I asked the club’s event chairman. “When the tuba player comes back,” he answered. I have been booked into a casino twice in doing Las Vegas, where I saw markers in the collection plate at Sunday Mass. In contrast to Las Vegas neon, I have talked at an alumni club picnic on the Snake River near Buhl, Idaho.
I have addressed alumni in 42 of the 50 states, and some of the most relaxing tours of duty were in the days when alumni clubs in a region were asked to schedule their UND Nights consecutively. I still remember a spring stint several years ago when I went up the Mohawk River and down the Hudson, stopping at several New York state alumni clubs along the way. And I recall another leisurely drive visiting clubs down the Pacific Coast Highway, ending up in Orange County, California, where the club produced a full house on, of all things, Oscar night. Short car trips between talks were pleasant; plane trips were not. I once did six airborne UND Nights in seven days — Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, Spokane and Butte.
Until two years ago, I had never missed a scheduled talk to alumni, but in spring 2000 my luck ran out. I missed three Notre Dame Celebrations in a row because of plane problems. Weather interfered with the first trip, mechanical difficulties the second. Starting my third trip, I was relieved to note my flight arriving on the runway of South Bend Regional Airport. Ten minutes later, the aircraft had still not pulled up to the gate. I pressed against the waiting room window — the passenger jet had blown a tire and gone off the runway. Sorry, Binghamton.
Despite the vicissitudes of travel, UND Nights and Notre Dame Celebrations were for me always more energizing than enervating. The loyalty of Notre Dame graduates, including alumnae who were increasingly assuming leadership positions in clubs, made my office more inviting and my administrative tasks more enjoyable upon return to campus. I also could observe cultural change in the hinterland — football smokers disappeared, social service committees started up, the “Notre Dame Man of the Year” became the “Notre Dame Person of the Year.”
The tradition of UND Nights/Notre Dame Celebrations is a gesture of appreciation to those alumni of whom Jim Armstrong, the first full-time director of the Alumni Association, was so fond — the graduates who quietly raise families, worship God and contribute in small ways to the commonweal. I always ended my talks to alumni clubs by recalling the time about midway through my speaking career when a member of the audience came up afterward and said, “You know, I left Notre Dame 25 years ago . . . but Notre Dame never left me.”
Richard Conklin recently retired as associate vice president for University Relations at Notre Dame.