Letter from Campus: The Guide Who Knew Too Much

Author: Ed Cohen

A group of us staff members were sitting at a table outside the Huddle one day when, loud enough so everyone could hear, Kerry, our editor-in-chief, asked me how long campus tours normally last. An hour and a half, I said, knowing what was coming next.

“Tell them how long yours lasted.”

A short pause. “Two and a half.”

Kerry was referring to my Plimptonesque turn a few days earlier as a tour guide for the Eck Visitors Center. I thought it would be fun to lead a group of visitors around campus because I’ve always enjoyed showing off Notre Dame to friends and relatives when they visit. After seven years working for and writing about this place, I know much more about it than about my own alma mater. But I often go overboard on things, and my tour would prove no exception.

There are two campus tours. The admissions office offers one for prospective students and their parents that leaves from the Dome. They said no to my request to play tour guide. Which left me with the Visitors Center.

The then-director acquiesced but on one condition: I had to take along one of her regular tour guides, a student. I agreed but couldn’t help feeling like a girl whose mom insists her older sister come along to the mall to make sure she doesn’t get her ears pierced. Especially after I found out that my chaperone, Mark Coomes, was a seminarian-to-be.

The 10 people registered for my 1 o’clock tour consisted of couples from Des Moines, Iowa; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and upstate New York. They were joined by three Texans and a South Bender they were visiting.

We left the center on time, me facing my flock as I walked backward and projected enthusiastically about the new bookstore on our left, “twice as large as the old one.” We walked across the South Quad and stopped in Reckers, the all-night eatery behind the South Dining Hall that I explained was named for Clement Recker, the first student to enroll at Notre Dame. In the new Coleman-Morse building, I expounded on how the mechanism in the fountain’s giant rotating granite ball worked.

I was ad-libing the whole time and feeling pretty good about myself. Look at me, first-time tour guide, gliding seamlessly from trivia to geography to history. My self-congratulations didn’t last long. As we were leaving Coleman-Morse, the Texas-South Bend quartet abruptly dropped out. Am I that boring? I thought.

It turned out one of them, a man in a wheelchair, wasn’t feeling well. At least that’s the information Mark relayed, but he could have been trying out being pastoral on me.

From Coleman-Morse, I showed the group the Rock’s gothic vaulted entrance chamber. We took in the nifty lake view of Saint Mary’s Lake from the Lyons arch. I explained about Notre Dame’s full name being Notre Dame du Lac. We then walked over to the Log Chapel and Old College. Mark had a key to Old College because he’d been living there since his arrival on campus two years earlier. He led us through the cramped interior, which was a treat for me because I’d never been inside what is Notre Dame’s oldest building.

It’s hard to believe 17 guys live in this tiny building, which includes a cozy community kitchen and an almost kindergarten-scale chapel. Mark pointed out a sign on the wall by the narrow stairway that his parents had sent him. Modeled after a more famous sign by a stairway on the other side of campus, it read, “Pray Like a Champion Today.”

After a stop at the Grotto we entered the Main Building. On the ground floor I explained how this was actually the third Main Building. Some bystanders thought I was giving a tour of the building and asked if they could join. I said sure, and we all trouped upstairs to the first floor.

As I started to explain the history of the Columbus murals, I had a minor panic attack. I was telling about all the people in the paintings being modeled on University employees at the time but couldn’t remember the name of the president who had been Gregori’s model for Columbus. I imagined making a wrong guess just as Monk came walking down the hall. (“Who is this idiot, and why is he leading a tour?!”) Instead I said I couldn’t remember for sure. Thinking fast, Mark looked up the answer (Rev. Thomas Walsh) in one of the brochures in the stand in the hallway while I pointed out the Kermit the Frog, belly dancer, fishing lure and bowling pin playfully painted into the “fringes” by the mural restorers.

Later, at a stop outside the library, one tourist pointed to something I’d never seen on campus before: a squirrel drowning in the reflecting pool. It had fallen in and couldn’t climb up over the lip. Mark raced to help but before he got there the rodent clambered out on his own.

Back at the Eck complex, the visitors center director made the predictable joke about preparing to send out a search party. She then asked Mark how I’d done.

Well, he said. He told her that of the 22-page script they make the tour guides learn, I’d probably covered 90 percent of the material, along with lots of material not in the script. He didn’t volunteer what percentage he thought I’d invented.

The remaining six tourists all shook my hand and thanked me, which was gratifying. At the beginning of the outing I’d introduced myself and told them about my regular job. I said they were therefore in for either best tour they could get or the worst.

All I can say with any degree of certainty is it was the longest.

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.