My Notre Dame Victories

Author: Edward Vasta '52

My Notre Dame experiences as an undergraduate and a faculty member make me think that the Victory March celebrates the University’s victories not only in athletics but also in individual lives, like mine. In my seventh year of retirement, after teaching in ND’s English Department for 40 years, I can now recount our encounters.

I graduated from Benton Harbor High just six months before President Truman, on December 31, 1946, marked the final victory of the Allies in World War II. My hopes for a college education depended on the G.I. Bill, so I immediately signed up for a two-year stretch in the Navy. I served as an Electronic Technicians Mate, 3rd Class, assigned to the USS Chilton, a transport anchored in California’s San Diego Harbor.

In early 1948, only months before my enlistment ended, I applied for admission to three home-state universities: Michigan, Michigan State and Western Michigan. One day, working on a transmitter, I searched the files for the needed electronic manual and came across—guess what —a University of Notre Dame catalog. What in the world was a Notre Dame catalog doing aboard a ship in San Diego Harbor? And how come I came across it only now, in a file drawer I had rummaged through for months?

I read it thoroughly, thought about applying there and finally decided, “Well, why not?”

President Truman’s demobilization program released me from the Navy two months early, in April 1948. Waiting for me at home were admissions conferred by all three Michigan universities, but nothing from Notre Dame. Something kept me waiting, and Notre Dame finally responded, offering admission and requiring an immediate payment of $25.

I had to think about it, not because of the up-front fee but because it was Notre Dame. Friends and classmates supplied no help for my decision. My high school principal, whose advice I sought, informed me that Notre Dame was an elitist all-boys school and that I would feel extremely out of place when I saw Notre Dame classmates delivered to campus in limousines.

Still, I thought about it, and Notre Dame won. I sent the $25.

I found Notre Dame students to be mostly veterans, like me, on the G.I. Bill. In fact, ND’s tuition was capped to the amount paid by the G.I. Bill, and the school provided campus jobs that paid for room and board. I never saw a single student dropped off by a limo.

Notre Dame’s curriculum was mostly required courses and areas. I became an English major, the curriculum of which centered on a required four-semester sequence of humanistic literature taught by Professors Rufus Rauch and Frank O’Malley. Luckily, I had enough freedom to take creative writing courses from Professors Richard Sullivan and John Frederick.

I chose Italian as my required language and took some six semesters from Professor Paul Bosco. By coincidence, Professor Rauch’s syllabus included a translation of Dante’s Inferno, and the combination of Italian language and Dante intrigued me so much that I also took a course on Dante’s entire Divine Comedy, taught by English professor and poet John Nims.

So what did Notre Dame have to do with this? ND informed all its seniors about the U.S. government’s recently instituted Fulbright Scholars Program, which provided a year of study abroad. I couldn’t resist. I wanted to go to Italy to study Dante and Italian literature, so I applied for a year of study at the University of Florence.

In 1952, I graduated from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in English, but with no grant, no plans for graduate school and no job. At the last minute, however, professors Sullivan and Fredrick offered me free participation in the University’s summer creative writer’s conference, chaired by Professor Nims. This award rescued me, and not just for that week. I write fiction to this day.

About a month after graduation, the U.S. government, to my surprise, awarded me a Fulbright Scholarship for a full year of study at the University of Florence. The grant not only saved the year and got me deep into Dante and Italian literature, it initiated my lifelong academic direction and made me go for an advanced degree. In four years, Notre Dame had redesigned me. In the end, it would take over completely.

From Italy, I sent out applications for admission and financial aid to master’s degree programs at various universities. Because Notre Dame had turned me into a Fulbright scholar, Stanford not only accepted my application but offered financial aid, the only university to do so. I couldn’t accept their offer, however, because the financial aid was small. I had left the United States engaged to the girl I met in my sophomore year at Notre Dame. I wanted to marry her immediately upon my return, and at this writing, we’ve been married for 51 years. For my master’s degree, my wife and I went to the University of Michigan, where tuition for state residents was minor. I got my degree in one year.

Then I wanted a Ph.D. It turned out that Notre Dame’s humanistic curriculum, capped by my Fulbright year in Italy, qualified me for Stanford’s new Ford Foundation doctoral program in English and Humanities. I applied, and Stanford awarded me a four-year Ford Foundation grant. It’s now clear to me that ND had, from the beginning, set me up for graduate work at Stanford.

Even then, Notre Dame did not leave me alone. After completing Stanford’s course work and doctoral exams, I had to come up with a dissertation. Most of my courses at Stanford were in 19th-century British literature, but I couldn’t forget the Middle English poem I had studied, in translation, under Professor Rauch at Notre Dame: the Medieval religious epic Piers the Plowman. That work had so captivated me that I studied it over again, in the original Middle English, at Stanford. In the mounds of scholarship I read, I felt that the poem had not yet been understood. I had to break through the epic’s darkness and release its light.

I chose that subject for my dissertation, and Stanford accepted my proposal. Through that religious poem, and through my study of Dante and Italian literature in Florence, Notre Dame had turned me into a medievalist.

After four years at Stanford, with course work, exams and dissertation proposal completed but no dissertation and no degree, and with three children, it was the job market for me. In 1958, the academic job market was weak. I applied to universities in the East, West and Midwest, but not to Notre Dame. Why? Because once I got to graduate school, both at Michigan and Stanford, I found myself so far behind other students in the coverage of English and American literature that I had to work hard to catch up. I convinced myself that Notre Dame’s religious and humanistic education was good for a future owner of a shoe store but not for a future academic.

Then Notre Dame challenged me again. In my mailbox, I found a letter from Father Soleta, then chairman of ND’s English Department. He had apparently learned that I was on the job market and offered me an instructorship that paid $5,200 a year. Once again, Notre Dame ambushed me, and it did so when I still had no job nailed down.

When I joined the Notre Dame faculty in 1958, the sixth year of Father Hesburgh’s presidency, I found a different university. In every respect—administrative organization, degree requirements, curricula, student housing, University benefits, and so on—the professionalism of the place had been radically strengthened, refined and elevated.

My dissertation, though, was a problem. It took me four years to find the theological context that finally opened to me the meaning of Piers the Plowman. That left me only one year, the last available by Stanford’s rules, to write my dissertation. Luckily, I was awarded a Danforth Teacher Study grant for that year, and Notre Dame gave me a year’s leave of absence. I produced my dissertation, The Spiritual Basis of Piers the Plowman, in the nick of time.

On my way to Stanford for the post-dissertation exam, I met Father Hesburgh at the South Bend airport. Sitting together and chatting on our way to Chicago’s O’Hare, he bolstered my confidence in the face of Stanford’s six-hour oral Ph.D. specialist examination.

My doctorate was conferred in 1963. Shortly after, a book publisher contacted me about publishing my dissertation with a subsidy of $200. I welcomed the opportunity to publish my first book but couldn’t afford the subsidy, so I passed the publisher’s letter along to the Main Building to see if Notre Dame would help. The University granted the subsidy immediately, and when the book came out, Father Hesburgh sent me a congratulatory letter and thanked me for the copy I had sent him.

By the time my dissertation was published, I was an assistant professor. My wife and I had six children (in a span of seven years: the rhythm method, of course). I received promotions and salary increases after that, but during the first 15 years or so, my Notre Dame salary kept our family struggling. Eventually, I looked for another job and finally accepted the chairmanship of the English Department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I signed the contract, informed Father Hesburgh and reported the matter to Jim Robinson, our department chairperson. We had been losing faculty members, and Jim didn’t want to lose another, so he spoke to Dean Crosson. They raised my annual salary by $2,000. It did not match the Ohio offer, but it was marginally enough to make it not quite worth the cost of moving to Ohio. I withdrew from the offer. Notre Dame won again.

The English Department had already made me director of Graduate Studies (1966–69), and after Jim Robinson’s term, Arts and Letters made me the department’s chairperson (1972–78). When, in 1978, I received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, both the English Department and the Graduate School chipped in enough money for me to take a year’s leave of absence and finish my novel in Europe, most of it in Italy.

And so it went, for another 16 years, until I retired. It’s all been Notre Dame’s doing. For some 50 years, from undergraduate to faculty member, my life has been repeatedly diagnosed, outmaneuvered and directed by Notre Dame’s strategies. I have to admit, of course, that it was all for my good, as well as the good of my beloved wife and my dear children, all six of whose college education has been made possible by ND’s Education of Faculty Children’s Benefit.

So all I can do now, after seven years of retirement, is try to get used to these revelations and learn to relish the thoughts and feelings that Notre Dame puts into my heart and my head when I hear students sing:

What though the odds be great or small,

Old Notre Dame will win over all

While her loyal sons are marching

Onward to victory.