Laetare Lesson

Author: Gerald O'Reilly '47

The Laetare medal is awarded annually by Notre Dame to an outstanding Catholic. The selection is announced on Laetare Sunday, the first Sunday in May. Recipients have ranged from Clare Booth Luce to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Irene Dunne and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1910, the Laetare Medal was awarded to my grandfather, Maurice Francis Egan. At his death in 1924, it was “awarded” to me.

From 1888 until 1896, my grandfather was chairman of English Literature at Notre Dame. In 1896, he took the same position at Catholic University. In 1907 he resigned this professorship on his appointment as minister to Denmark by President Theodore Roosevelt. He continued in this post under presidents Taft and Wilson, resigning in ill health in 1918. The purchase of the Danish West Indies was successfully made through his efforts in 1917. His most renowned book is Recollections of a Happy Life. From all indications, his was exactly that.

Once in my possession, his 1910 Laetare Medal appeared with its proud keeper at Notre Dame games wherever and whenever it was needed to give us an edge. It has had a highly successful career.

On October 5, 2002, the Stanford game coincided with my brother Moe’s 90th birthday. (He’s a Georgetown guy, but equally devoted to Notre Dame.) Naturally the Laetare Medal went with me on the trip to Orange, Virginia, to celebrate both the special birthday and to participate in the victory over Stanford. On Monday, October 7, I drove to Dulles airport to head home to Litchfield, Connecticut. A delightful 90th birthday celebration, plus a solid win over Stanford, had me in high spirits.

The euphoria quickly evaporated at the airport security checkpoint, where an overly aggressive "checker"selected me as a guy whose carry-on bag needed a thorough analysis. The bag has three sections, and the Laetare Medal is traditionally stored in the middle one, usually encased in a a dirty shirt. To me, the checker seemed overly thorough. At the conclusion of his search, he announced that the bag would have to go through the screening machine again. He handed the bag to another security man, asking that when cleared, it be given to “that guy.” He then left the area, seemingly going off duty.

When the plane landed in Hartford, I lifted my bag from the overhead compartment and headed to the United Airlines Terminal and, necessarily, to the men’s room. While exiting, I heard a familiar refrain, the “Notre Dame Victory March,” coming from my bag. In addition to the Laetare, on football trips I also carry an old and faithful musical button that plays the “Victory March” when triggered. Not wanting to kneel down in a crowded men’s room to silence the sacred music, I rushed in to the terminal and, somewhat surreptitiously shut it off. (During football games, the musical button is activated after each ND score—even for a rare safety.

When I arrived home and unpacked, I was walloped with the chilling realization that the 1910 Laetare Medal was not there.

My wife, Seton (as in Mother Seton) often needles me about my small motor muscles, which, I admit leave a little something to be desired. It is possible that when kneeling down to open my bag to shut off the music, the Laetare could have slipped out, unbeknownst to me. And so I am left with either evil thoughts about the light-fingered security guard at Dulles or a simple case of butterfingers on my part. But what to do?

While a call to Dulles might have made sense, I pegged it as a long shot and decided to call the Hartford airport security police. A patient sergeant listened to my tale of woe and assured me he’d get a couple of his men on the search immediately. (I guess I’m now saying that it was probably my clumsiness and not the unfriendly security guy at Dulles.)

The sergeant had a distinctly Irish name, and in my typical Irish con fashion, I asked him if he were a Notre Dame football fan, this guaranteeing a possible blood brother bond. Somewhat apologetically he said, “No, I’m a Penn State fan.” I quickly countered with the fact that Joe Paterno was a freshman at our high school (Brooklyn Prep) when I was a senior. Thus encouraged, the officer said he would call back with the result of his search. He did: It had not been found. He offered three possible scenarios. He thought that if a solid citizen found it, he or she, noting the Notre Dame reference on the medal, would make an effort to contact the University. The other two possibilities were both obvious and gloomy—it would go straight to a pawnshop or be melted down.

Word of the disaster spread rapidly to our six children and my three older siblings. To me, as to them, the 1910 Laetare Medal could not have been more important to our family had it been an Olympic gold medal or the Congressional Medal of Honor, neither of which I possess.

Suggestions abounded aplenty, with much talk about the use of e-Bay, or perhaps help from friends and fellow alumni who are retired FBI agents. Finally, and logically, I went to “the source,” the University of Notre Dame.

Operating under the sound theory that “you start at the top, because it gets a bit soft around the middle,” I wrote to Father Malloy. He quickly and sympathetically responded to my letter, and turned the challenge over to Father Richard Warner, counselor to the president and head of the Laetare Medal selection committee. The response from Father Warner was also immediate and encouraging. He advised that it would be possible to strike (I love that term) a replacement medal. You can imagine my delight and relief at hearing this happy news.

Several weeks ago, Father Warner’s concerned and efficient secretary, Sarah Gotsch, called my home. She announced that the medal was ready to roll, and as is now evidently standard, it would be encased in a glass dome. My wife suggested that it would be better positioned in a jeweler’s box, making for easy freedom of movement. Much to Sarah’s amusement, Seton described the function of the medal during games watched at home. Specifically, and I am seriously embarrassed to admit this, it is applied, at crucial times, to the hand of my grandfather’s large portrait, which is the focal point of our library. He has come through under pressure on countless occasions.

Just in time for the NCAA basketball tournament, a beautiful, gleaming, solid gold replacement 1910 Laetare Medal was delivered to me. It is impossible to express my thanks and gratitude to the University for its over-and-above effort.

If at some Notre Dame football game this fall, you spot an 80-year-old Irish-looking guy, his right hand carefully guarding the right hand pocket of his trousers, please introduce yourself. It might be worth some laughs and a few points. If there’s a moral to this story, it probably is that one should never let something you cherish out of your sight. In my case, it will never happen again. And my youngest son, Peter, Class of ’94, will be its next protector.

The Laetare Medal inscription reads, “Magna est Veritas et Praevalebit” —"Great is Truth and it Shall Prevail." Sadly, I’ll never know the truth as to the fate of the medal. Happily, however, “our hearts forever love thee Notre Dame.”