Fifteen Minutes, 50 Years Later

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

Members of the Notre Dame Ten and their supporters pray in the Main Building 50 years to the day after their sit-in led to the only invocation of Father Hesburgh's “15-minute rule.” Photo by Barbara Johnston

Fifty years to the day that 10 Notre Dame students were suspended for their actions protesting the Vietnam War, three of the men returned to campus November 18 to reflect on that era and its place in history.

The visitors were Mark Mahoney ’71, John Eckenrode ’72 and Chris Cotter. All the men are now in their early 70s.

Mahoney, of Buffalo, N.Y., said he has no regrets about participating in the sit-in or the subsequent penalty. “For a lot of us, it changed our lives,” he said.

The case of the Notre Dame Ten drew national attention during the civil unrest and antiwar protests of the late 1960s.  It was the first and only time the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh’s 15-minute rule was invoked: Student protesters who disrupted the University’s operation or infringed on the rights of others would be given 15 minutes to reflect and desist. Those who did not desist would be face immediate suspension, expulsion and/or removal.

On November 18, 1969, job interviews were being held at Notre Dame by the CIA and Dow Chemical Company, the Michigan-based firm that made napalm, an incendiary gel used by U.S. troops as a weapon in Vietnam.

Notre Dame student activists planned a repeat of an antiwar protest held the previous year during CIA and Dow Chemical interviews. This one would play out far differently.

As the protestors stood and sat around the doorway of the job interview office in the Main Building, the Rev. James Riehle ’49, ’78M.A., then dean of students, invoked the rule and informed the activists that they had 15 minutes to desist.

Fifteen minutes later, Riehle asked for and received the IDs of 10 students. Five were suspended and five were expelled, although all were later changed to suspensions. They came to be known as the “Notre Dame Ten.”

The 10 students who forfeited their IDs served their suspensions. Seven of the 10 later returned and completed their degrees.

Eckenrode, of Ithaca, N.Y., said that, as an undergraduate, he had become increasingly troubled by the war and Notre Dame’s involvement in it. “I felt this was an opportune and necessary time for action,” he said of the sit-in.

“You can imagine that call home,” he said of notifying his parents of his suspension. His father was a 1942 Notre Dame graduate.

The sit-in and subsequent suspension was also a significant part of his education, Eckenrode said, noting that events outside the classroom can be as important for college students as what they learn in the classroom.

Because of his suspension, Eckenrode graduated from Notre Dame a semester late. He went on to graduate school at Tufts University, earning a doctoral degree in psychology. He recently retired after 36 years as a professor of human development at Cornell University, where much of his work focused on the impact of violence on children and families.

Without the Vietnam War and the sit-in, Eckenrode said he thinks he would have had a far more typical Notre Dame undergraduate experience. “The war called for a different approach,” he said.

Mahoney had hoped to attend the University of Chicago Law School, but wasn’t admitted when the school learned he had been suspended as an undergraduate. Instead, he attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and went on to a long career as a criminal defense attorney.

The goal of the sit-in wasn’t to keep the CIA and Dow recruiters out, Mahoney said. The protesters wanted the recruiters to participate in a campus forum and answer questions from students about their hiring and their practices, Mahoney said.

Cotter, a resident of Urbana, Ohio, said when he enrolled at Notre Dame as a freshman, his hope was to earn a degree that would lead him to a comfortable job and allow him to join a country club, play golf and associate with the “right people.” The Vietnam War and classes he took in Christian ethics changed all that, he said.

Learning about the killings of civilians in Vietnam by American troops, he grew opposed to the war and American actions in southeast Asia. Cotter said he went to the Main Building that day with a goal. “I was going to block the door (to the placement office). I went with that intent in mind,” he said.

Cotter was readmitted to Notre Dame, but he soon dropped out. He became involved in peace activities in Ohio and elsewhere, and eventually earned a degree at Ohio State University and became a physical therapist.

He said he doesn’t know how his life would have been different if he hadn’t participated in the Main Building sit-in. “I don’t think about that,” he said. “I just think about trying to live a gospel lifestyle every day.”

On their visit to campus this week, Mahoney, Eckenrode and Cotter were joined by two other figures from the sit-in and its aftermath: the Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy ’62, ’63M.A., ’68M.A., a Notre Dame professor who helped craft the defense for the 10 men and resigned his faculty position in protest over their treatment; and Carl Estabrook, at the time a history professor who also supported them.

McCarthy was a faculty member in 1969, leading Notre Dame’s fledgling Program for the Study and Practice of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution. He resigned his faculty position in December 1969. (In 1981, he was ordained a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern Catholic church.)

McCarthy said the Notre Dame students didn’t deserve suspension or expulsion, because they weren’t advocating violence on campus like antiwar protesters were at some other universities.

“There was no viciousness, anger or hostility,” he said. The student protesters were raising legitimate questions regarding the teachings of the Catholic Church about warfare and whether American involvement in Vietnam was morally acceptable.

Estabrook said by the time the sit-in took place, polls showed that 70 percent of Americans disapproved of the Vietnam War. 

“I had just begun teaching at Notre Dame,” Estabrook said. “My teaching contract was not renewed after two years. I left not by choice.” He attributes that decision to his support for the Notre Dame Ten. He subsequently taught sociology at several other universities, retiring from the University of Illinois in 2008.

During their November 18 visit, the three men gathered with some classmates and the former professors. They walked up the front steps of the Main Building, then climbed another set of stairs to the third floor. They stood by the rotunda railing and together said a prayer near a door marked Room 309. In 1969, that room was the office where recruiters held interviews with students seeking jobs for after college.

Later in the day, the men recorded a video interview in a campus studio about their memories of that era, then attended a Mass. In the evening, they spoke in the Eck Visitors Center, reflecting on the sit-in and subsequent events to an audience of about 35 people.

Coincidentally, a day before the November 18 anniversary gathering, a group of Notre Dame students staging a sit-in in Stanford Hall against parietals and hate speech were told they faced potential expulsion if they didn’t leave a residential hallway.

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.