Joe Slovinec Comes Home

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Joe Slovinec

Joe Slovinec was an only child. He was brilliant. Lovable but enigmatic. Some said quirky, others said peculiar. Eccentric. Genuine. Friend to all. One of a dozen classmates who made it to Notre Dame from Marist High School in Chicago. He lived in Dillon. He was passionate about politics. He talked politics so passionately that his machine-gun delivery made it difficult for people to understand what he was saying. He worked at The Observer. He liked a cold beer. And more than one. Friends from Dillon, some of whom were high school buddies, made sure he got home safely. He was president of the Notre Dame-Saint Mary’s Young Democrats. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1980. With honors. A member of the National Political Science Honors Society. Even in high school he was known as Joe Slo. He was elected to the student council at Marist, a friend recalls, “because students thought it would be funny to vote for him.” He was co-editor of the Marist Sentinel. Years later he showed up on the doorstep of his fellow editor, who was living in New Jersey, to tell him those newspapering days were some of his favorite times. As a Notre Dame student, Joe Slovinec studied in Rome. In his junior year he got dressed up for Junior Parents Weekend. His parents didn’t show; a friend talked with him through the night. Even then his mental illness was beginning to reveal itself. 

Slovinec earned a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University in 1982. A decade later he was awarded a master’s degree in history from DePaul University in Chicago. “In many ways,” a classmate explains, “Joe Slovinec was Notre Dame’s version of American mathematician John Nash, the Nobel laureate in economics whose life was featured in the Oscar-winning film, A Beautiful Mind. Joe was a beautiful person with a gifted and brilliant mind.” Classmates tried to help him find jobs. “Because of his afflictions and sometimes strange and awkward behavior,” says Leo Latz ’80, “Joe was basically unhireable. His presentation and interviewing skills prohibited anyone from taking a chance hiring him, especially as the years progressed.” His mental illness went undiagnosed; his life became an erratic spiral. 

Still, wherever his road took him, he rarely missed a Notre Dame Club of Chicago event and never missed a class reunion. “Getting together with his Notre Dame friends was his first love,” says Latz. Says Mary Ellen Woods, 1980 class secretary: “Our class has a program of offering assistance to those who would attend reunion but are having financial difficulty doing so. He was our only repeat customer.” In the mid-’80s Slovinec got a ticket to the annual Rockne Dinner in Chicago and — crooked glasses, greasy hair — came striding into the cocktail reception, recalls Jeff Kohler ’79, “wearing the brand-new suit he had bought just that afternoon for the dinner. The brown suit was two sizes too big. The pant legs were not hemmed and were dragging on the floor. The white, square garment tag was still stitched onto the sleeve.” Kohler’s wife Maureen (O’Brien) Kohler ’81SMC asked Jeff for the Swiss Army knife he routinely carried and “whisked Joe Slo out of the room.” She quickly got him tailored, groomed and combed, re-tied his tie. “Joe was one of a kind,” says Kohler with affection. “Very smart, and a social delinquent.” 

In March 2019, Slovinec, who for years had lived in supportive housing in Washington, D.C., moved back to Chicago. He landed at the Pacific Garden Mission, not far from classmates who would occasionally drive by and check on him. Slovinec told Woods he didn’t agree with the advice of the counselors treating him and had stopped responding to their guidance. When the class’s 40th reunion was canceled in 2020 because of COVID, some 250 members gathered in June via Zoom. Classmates were surprised and concerned there was no sign of Slovinec.

Joe Slovinec had died in his bed at the Pacific Garden Mission on January 22, 2020. Attempts by police to contact a distant cousin — listed as his next of kin — failed. A ward of the state, he had suffered from heart disease and diabetes; his remains were cremated. 

Slovinec’s story does not end there; his legacy is bigger than this tragic tale of mental illness and destitution. Here is a kind of epilogue. 

Looking for his classmate and friend, Mike O’Reilly ’80 discovers Joe’s name on a list of indigent, unclaimed bodies on the Cook County Coroner’s website. Class president Mary Ryan Amato learns that remains not claimed within 30 days are buried in one of two paupers’ cemeteries in Cook County. But Latz finds a website that says ashes are kept for one year. It has been 11 months. Latz urgently calls and is told Slovinec’s remains are still there — and can be retrieved by a family member for $250. A classmate finds another cousin, who gives Latz permission to obtain the ashes. 

On December 14, 2020, Latz drives to the county medical examiner’s office — “a surreal place and a bit spooky,” he says. He finds an empty lobby and a bulletproof window; he is taken to the morgue and given a sealed cardboard box holding a sealed plastic container with Joe’s ashes. He carries the box to his car. “I place Joe on the passenger seat,” he says, “and buckle him in. Seriously.” He calls O’Reilly and says, “You won’t believe this, but Joe is sitting next to me. It’s only been five minutes and he is already driving me crazy.” There is “laughter and tears,” he recalls. At home, Latz places the box on a bookshelf with other Notre Dame paraphernalia. He calls Woods and Amato and tells them, “Joe has moved into my basement — something I never thought would have happened.” More laughter and tears.

Two days later, a funeral Mass is said in Peru by class chaplain Father Joe Uhen ’80. It is attended via Zoom by 75 classmates. A virtual Irish wake follows; everyone tells a favorite story. Latz adds, “So here it is a week before Christmas, and I’m walking to my office and a store is decorated with an It’s a Wonderful Life motif. In the window is the letter from Clarence the Angel to George Bailey that says ‘No man is a failure who has friends,’ and I started crying, thinking Joe may have died penniless and homeless, but he was rich because of his friends.” 

Still, there is the dilemma: What to do with the ashes? Then, wouldn’t it be great if Joe were buried at Notre Dame? So Woods gets in touch with Leon Glon, sexton at Cedar Grove Cemetery, who will make the arrangements. Classmates and friends chip in the $2,500 needed for the plot, burial costs and a headstone. In May 2021, given the go-ahead, Latz delivers Slovinec’s remains to Glon at Cedar Grove. 

On October 1, 2021, the former University president, Father Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, ’63, ’67M.A., ’69M.A. presides over the graveside services for Joe Slovinec with about 75 classmates, spouses and friends bundled together at Cedar Grove, saying prayers, paying their last respects. “There’s no doubt,” says Latz, “that Joe was smiling down on us from heaven, resting in peace at his beloved Notre Dame, being part of yet another Notre Dame reunion, on a Notre Dame football weekend.” 

His classmates and friends have one more thing to say in conclusion. Without exception they say that Joe Slovinec made them a better person, taught them something about life, gave them a better sense of humanity, made them more empathetic, more understanding. “Joe Slo enriched my life,” said one. “He was first and foremost a child of God who had a tough time on Earth. I give thanks for his presence in my life.”

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.