Memories from Another Century

Author: Armiger (Joe) H. Sommers '42, '43M.S., '48Ph.D

My first memory of Notre Dame is the day I stepped off a street car at the Circle as a freshman in early September 1938. I had to come up to Indiana from my home in Clarksdale, Mississippi, possessing a warm Southern accent but lacking warm winter clothing. Max Alder’s “On the Corner” furnished coat and corduroys, and time has now eroded the accent but not my memories. The afternoon before that big day I had boarded the overnight Illinois Central “City of New Orleans” train in Memphis, and arrived at the 12th Street Station in Chicago after a sleepless night on coach. From there I rattled down into Indiana on South Shore Electric car to its terminus which then was on a busy downtown South Bend street corner. Both of those train stations, in Chicago and South Bend, have now finished; but ah, yes, I remember them well.

To my amazement and relief my steamer trunk reached South Bend on the same train as I did, and I trustfully tagged it for delivery to Zahm Hall before boarding a streetcar named “Notre Dame” just across the street from the station. The Notre Dame streetcar took what seemed to me to be a roundabout route through a rather unprepossessing section of town. Apart from Notre Dame itself, all I knew about South Bend at the time was that it must be the home of the South Bend Bait Co., maker of the very popular Bass-O-Reno lure, and of the Studebaker Co., maker of the automobile that to proved to be not quite so popular. When the car made its direct approach up Notre Dame Avenue to the campus I caught my first sight of the Golden Dome. It was even more imposing than I had expected. Only then did I really know that I had come to live a new life of study and camaraderie with new friends.

Accents are in the ear of the listener, of course, and my ears heard a lot of Yankee accents during those first days at Notre Dame. My first roommate turned out to be Graham, a self-assured New Englander from Burlington, Vermont, a place about as far from Clarksdale as I though you could get. After facing up to the tough Architecture curriculum for a few weeks, Graham decided to withdraw from school for a year and choose a more compatible major subject the next time around. I’m glad to say that he did, in fact, come back to graduate.

Graham’s departure brought me a new roommate, Charles, known as Chuck. He hailed from equally distant Casper, Wyoming. His Western drawl was a change from Graham’s clipped Eastern accent, as indeed was nearly everything else about him, including his cowboy friend, Mose, who was also from Casper.

All around me in Zahm Hall and in class and at the Dining Hall tables were newly arrived freshmen from many other states that up till then to me just had been names on the map. They came from all over, but each one was, like me, someday to have his own special memories of Notre Dame, his Mother. The following are some of ingredients that went into my Notre Dame experience from 1938 to 1947. My memory being imperfect, they may sometimes vary from fact, or others’ recollections.

  • The culture shock of coming from a small, Southern town with a 10 percent Catholic minority to a national university with a 90-plus percent Catholic majority.
  • Thinking that my assigned half-a-room in Zahm Hall was spartan, until I visited Freshman Hall, housing a beehive-like community of freewheeling individualists. And also until I compared it to Brownson dormitory, an unlikely mix of muscular athletes and serious scholars who lived in layered harmony on several floors of the Main Building.
  • Going to the Saturday night picture show (called a “movie” by more sophisticated viewers) at a 7 or 9 p.m. showing in Washington Hall. If you ran over from the Dining Hall after that steak dinner you could save one or two seats for your friends, provided they didn’t dawdle.
  • Fifteen-week, 19 credit-hour semesters (at least for engineers, who took six periods a week of math as freshmen) and Saturday morning classes.
  • Enjoying Easter recess from Friday noon to Monday morning, but no such fanciful concept as spring (or fall) break, to rest the weary scholar and allow him to the bask in Florida for a week.
  • Trying to master calculus as taught by European refugee Professor Karl Menger, an acknowledged mathematical genius who was sometimes hard for non-geniuses to understand. But few problems with college algebra as taught by baseball coach Jake (Clarence) Kline, who understood just what you needed to know to pass, and taught it succinctly and clearly.
  • The Residence Halls. None of the insular “stay-hall” nonsense in my day. You spent one year, and only one year, in one of the three or four halls assigned to your class, in a room you chose in order of your academic class rank. For a brief shining year or two there was Freshman Hall, the aging Cardboard Palace, which was torn down when replaced by Breen-Phillips, last of the pre-WWII halls.
  • Being aware that Father Burke, Prefect of Discipline, or his assistant Mr. McAuliffe, regularly patrolled the “West of William and South of Wayne” section of South Bend that was strictly off limits to Notre Dame students, with intent to detain and chastise anyone found transgressing.
  • Wondering whether the Sunday afternoon tea dances at Saint Mary’s to which all ND students were automatically invited were your cup of tea, especially if you were rather shy. Besides, if you went you would miss an installment of Olga Coal Co.’s radio series “The Shadow (Knows).”
  • 9:30 p.m. closing time for the University Library, so that it could be locked up and the alarm system set by 10 p.m., to guard the art collection on the top floor. As a grad student for two years I set that alarm every night, then studied and slept secure in my basement room until 6:30 a.m. when I arose o turn it off so Tony the janitor could enter the building.
  • The rush to confessionals one autumn evening in 1938 when Orson Welles broadcast “The War of Words” on the radio, and quite a few sinners didn’t realize it was all make-believe.
  • The festivities in October 1940 when Knute Rockne All American premiered in Washington Hall, and many Hollywood stars came to South Bend. The movie is now a Notre Dame icon, never mind that many of the “ND” football players shown in it were from Southern Cal.
  • Serving V-7 Naval officer trainees their 6:30 a.m. coffee under the stern eye of Ziggy, the Dining Hall’s mid-European style dictator, and his little gray lieutenant, Joe. Working that one early shift earned me three meals a day, with menus not requiring wartime food stamps thanks to having servicemen eating their meals on campus.
  • South Bend’s radio station WSBT and the irrepressible wake-up voice of Lee Douglas. Students heard him before they stumbled down to the hall chapel to check in for Mass several mornings a week, to gain midnight check-in privileges for the coming Saturday night.
  • Father “Tuffy” Ryan, who led his Walsh charges on invigorating walks about the campus.
  • No civilizing or distracting influence of girls in any classes (the occasional nun of whatever age didn’t really count). But you caught glimpses of somewhat older young ladies in the Main Building offices or the Library or Saint Michael’s Laundry. They were all safely off campus by about 5 p.m., to return to their duties the following day.
  • At the end of Freshman year, getting the signatures of as many as possible of our classmates in our copy of the Dome yearbook. But never thinking of calling ourselves “Domers.”
  • The annual ritual of dunking an unlucky student who had somehow called unfavorable attention to himself in Saint Mary’s Lake, in view of the Grotto where the rosary was said in May.
  • Taking a break from the laboratory to go downtown to the Palais Theater to hear and see Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights orchestra, on tour out in the hinterland.
  • Thinking that 25 cents was too much to pay for a football program, when you might get lucky and find one after the game anyhow.
  • Appreciating the care that old Dr. McMeel or young Dr. McAndrew gave me when I visited the Infirmary for such for such ailments as a cinder in my eye from a coal-burning railway engine, an embarrassing encounter with piles or an infected boil on my knee that hospitalized me. Most ailments did not require an overnight stay however, just a pill or a gargle.
  • Splurging on two-bit milk shakes at the Huddle, or at the soda counter along the cafeteria’s north wall.
  • The opening of the new Rockne Memorial, absolutely the last word in indoor athletic space and equipment. The Rock’s gymnasium was also a convenient place for our Senior Ball where Vaughn Monroe’s orchestra played, and Vaughn sang, after he finally arrived an hour or so late.
  • Seeing Notre Dame and Army play to a scoreless tie at Yankee Stadium, November 9, 1946, when Johnny Lujack, and immovable object, stopped Doc Blanchard, heretofore an irresistible force, with an unforgettable open-field tackle.
  • Residence hall room checks by the floor prefect each night at 9:45 p.m., before a warning blink of lights at about 9:58 p.m.. Then they were cut off at 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning.
  • Being grateful for a federal government NYA (National Youth Administration) make-work job in the Library paying 30 cents an hour, to help a little on total fees of about $800 a year.
  • The four on-campus “bachelor dons” Paul Byrne, librarian; Paul Fenlon, English; Francis Winn Kervick, architecture; and Tom Madden, who shepherded the non-Catholic students (not required to take Religion classes) through “Readings in Dramatic Literature”
  • The “Green Banana,” a term that arrived in the early 1940s to describe any unfavorable event, circumstance or outcome of fate.
  • Being chosen to my astonishment and delight as a teaching assistant in Quantitative Analysis by Professor Andy Boyle. And getting to know his jovial officemate, Professor Larry Baldinger, who shepherded his pre-meds through organic chemistry. As a sideline, Baldinger analyzed mint oil produced by the muck farms of Northern Indiana, so the fragrant scent of peppermint oil filled the air for several weeks each fall.
  • The indelible memory of where we were and what we doing on Sunday evening, December 7, 1941, when we heard the news of Pearl Harbor. And the day soon afterward when a patriotic rally was held in the Dining Hall, and one student, “Mama” Clark, took over the microphone at the head of the table to make an impassioned plea for all of us to support the war effort by conserving paper, as for example by no longer lining the toilet seats. He got a round of applause.