M. Clay Adams, Rockne and Notre Dame in the 1930s

Author: Joe La Costa '79

A year or so ago one of my clients, who knew I was a Notre Dame grad, thought I might like to speak to another alumnus, whom he referred to as “94 years young” and who’d had a career in the movie and television business.

Eventually I met M. (for Michael, his grandfather) Clay Adams for lunch and spoke with him about his time at Notre Dame in the late 1920s and early ’30s. He was born on May 17, 1909, and graduated from ND in 1932, so his college years were both before and after the great stock market crash of 1929. . The conversation below is from the emails and the lunchtime conversations with M. Clay Adams.

Tell me about your early years.

I was born in the Bronx, New York, (North Bronx, not the South Bronx) on a street where today even the daylight hours are not really safe. My mother was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and she was of Irish – German descent. My father was born in New Brunswick, Canada. His father, my namesake, was a fairly distinguished Canadian named Michael Adams. He was an attorney and became a senator representing New Brunswick in the Canadian parliament. He was also appointed Minister of Fisheries of Canada by Queen Victoria. It is said that if my grandfather had not died at the age of 53, he might have become prime minister. My grandfather’s early death caused my father to sent to New York at age 15 to be raised by his uncle, who owned a large department store called “Adam’s & Co.” on 27th street in New York City. I grew up in the Bronx and attended elementary school at Public School 33 in the Bronx.

My childhood memories mostly involve my early interest in photography, mechanics, reading science magazines and building things. In the early 1920’s, at age 10 or 11 when radio was in its infancy, I built my first radio receiver using an oatmeal box with wire wrapped around it to create a “turning coil” and used a “galena” crystal with a " cat whisker" to detect the radio waves. When it was finished, I was actually able to hear voices in the ear phones. I called my mother into the room to let her hear people talking over the airwaves for the first time, and she almost fainted in disbelief. She thought that I must be some kind of genius. After we moved to Larchmont, I attended Mamaroneck High School and I fell in love with a girl who moved into the area after I did. She later went by the name of Claire Trevor and became a famous actress. She was nominated for three Academy Awards and won one for her performance in the 1948 movie Key Largo.

What made you decide to attend Notre Dame?

I really did not think about it much when I was in high school. However, my brother in law’s brother was at Notre Dame at the time, and my parents were staunch Catholics. It was quickly decided that I should apply for entrance into ND. As I recall the entrance requirements must have been quite simple in those days because I was not a brilliant high school student and there were no entrance tests like the SAT’s that I can recall. I have always thought that Walter Donnelly (my brother in law’s brother) assisted in obtaining my acceptance to ND. I lived in Howard Hall my freshman year.

How did you get to ND from New York?

Both the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroad trains stopped at South Bend coming and going from New York. Some of us from New York enjoyed taking the premier trains such as the Twentieth Century Limited and the Broadway Limited., even though they cost our parents more money, because they gave passengers a $1 per minute rebate for every minute they were late. Obviously, we always hoped for the train to be late.

I also remember some hairy trips in the winter. One was a trip home for Christmas break. The day we were let out of school, there was a blizzard, and there were hundreds of Notre Dame and some Saint Mary’s students stuck at the train station the entire day waiting for a train to get through from Chicago. When the first train finally arrived, the train was filled to overflowing. Since the trip was an overnight train and there was not enough room for the luggage or the passengers, luggage was everywhere. One of the fellows in our group finally got a seat and had a suitcase fall out of the rack above him and smashed his face into a bloody mess. His parents must have been horrified when he arrived home with bandages covering most of his face.

During my four-and-one-half years at ND (I lost a half year in switching from the Engineering school) we also drove to and from school if anyone going your way had a car. One year an off-campus roommate bought a secondhand car and sold transportation to about six of us. With the condition of the highways and the flat tires we endured it took us about 80 hours without any stop for sleep.

What can you remember about the sports and about Rockne?

First, the 1930 Fieldhouse was a huge building with a dirt floor that was used as an indoor track. (It was still there in the 1970s but was no longer used for sports. It was in the same general area as the fountains at the end of the North quad.) During basketball season they put a wood floor and bleachers over the dirt at one end of the building. Those basketball games were low-scoring affairs with scores like 21 to 19 or 18 to 17. I have no idea why the scores were so low.

An interesting use of the Fieldhouse in those days was as a gathering place for students when the football team was playing a game away from Notre Dame. There was a balcony high up over one end of the Fieldhouse where they would hang a large plywood board about 8 to 10 feet wide. It was painted green and marked off with the 10 yard lines in an exact replica of a football field. Fitted over this was a device with wires that would carry a miniature football back and forth over the board so it could be moved to any position on the painted football field. At game time everyone on campus would gather at the Fieldhouse and stand on the dirt below the balcony and “watch” the game’s progress. We would yell and cheer, as if we were at the actual game, when the miniature football showed where the play ended. When it crossed the goal line, we knew, of course, that a touchdown had been scored. There was a person moving the miniature football on the plywood board and he got the information from a telegraph.

In 1930 I had one of the first 16mm black-and-white movie cameras ever made. I was taking pictures with it on the practice field one day when Rockne noticed me and asked about it. He immediately got the idea that it might be beneficial for the players if they could see themselves in action on the field. In those days no one had ever thought of studying football plays with motion pictures, and videotape did not exist. Rockne was so impressed with the possibilities that he arranged for me to be on the top of the upper deck of the new stadium with the professional newsreel cameramen at the first game ever played there. The first game played in the stadium was against Navy, and I filmed the entire game with my small motion picture camera for Rockne to see. Unfortunately, this historic film, which would be priceless today, was lost in a house fire many years later.

As a bit of background, when I first arrived at ND, the football games were played in an old run-down wooden stadium called Cartier field. While the new (present and recently renovated) stadium was being built, we played our home games at Soldier Field in Chicago.

How was Rockne viewed in those days? Do you remember the day he died?

Rock was, of course, a legend in his own time and a tremendous figure on campus in those days. His teams were National Champions for most of my years at ND. In addition to the varsity squad in those days, each of the residence halls had teams which played against one another. The best team was given a steak dinner at the end of the season by Rockne.

As to stories, Rockne heard about a player who was on one of the residence hall teams by the name of Moon Mullins. Mullins had been quite impressive in the on campus league. Just before the game with Southern Cal one year, a huge fullback by the name of Joe Savoldi was expelled since it was discovered that he was married, which was strictly taboo. The sports pages were full of stories that his loss might mean that ND would not be able to beat Southern Cal and win the National Championship. Rockne decided to take Moon Mullins on the trip to Southern Cal as a potential replacement for Savoldi. During a stop over on Albuquerque, Rockne concentrated on working with Mullins in the fullback position. When the game started, a player by the name of Mullins was starting in the place of Savoldi, and this threw the reporters in the press booths and the fans in the stands for a loop. The story ended, of course, with the unknown Moon Mullins scoring several touchdowns, being the star of the game and ND beat Southern Cal and won the national championship.

Another story of Rock’s uncanny ability to find talent related to a small runner by the name of Jack Elder. He could run like lightning and had tied the world record for the 60-yard dash several times, but, because of his small stature, he was never considered as a football player. Rockne decided to exploit Elder’s speed at one of the home games we played at Soldier Field in front of some 110,000 fans. The game was nip and tuck into the fourth quarter. During a time out, a tiny guy with a number on his back that nobody had ever seen before was inserted as a substitute. After one or two plays with him in the game there was a lateral pass to Elder and he took off. It was like watching a rabbit being chased by an elderly dog. Elder ran half the length of the field, easily pulling away from those who were chasing him and increasing the distance until he crossed the goal line for a touchdown.

My recollection of the day Rockne died is a memorable one to me. ND was much smaller in those days, so almost everyone knew one another, at least by sight. It was customary for everyone to say hello to anyone you passed on the the paths around the campus. On that day the tragedy started out as a rumor. Someone said, “Do you know anything about Rockne? I heard he may have been hurt in an accident of some sort.” A little while later the rumor became more ominous. “I hear that Rockne was in an airplane accident.” Finally, the story was “It’s true, it has been confirmed that Rockne was killed in an airplane crash.” With that the strangest pall came over the whole campus. All conversation literally stopped. You could have heard a pin drop. You would pass other students and they would just walk by looking down at the ground. You would pass a group of students in front of Sorin Hall and they were not talking to one another. They stood in silence looking at each other with blank looks on their faces. There was absolute silence over the entire campus in utter disbelief over what had happened.