May 17 was a memorable week at the University of Notre Dame, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the visit by President Obama.
I graduated from Notre Dame Law School 20 years ago that week. Prior to the start of my law school classes, I began to read Scott Turow’s One L. The book describes Turow’s experience of attending Harvard Law School in the 1970s.
The book scared me. In fact, I couldn’t finish the tome until after I had graduated from law school. The long delay was caused by Turow’s all-too-graphic depiction of law school, including his abusive professors and scheming, uber-competitive classmates. In the end, Turow’s literary work was the antithesis of my Notre Dame journey. My experience can best be summed up, not by Turow, but by the story of Kevin Cummings, my fellow classmate.
Kevin arrived at ND Law from the state of Washington. He made an early impression on many of us, mainly because he insisted on wearing the purple and gold colors of his beloved Washington Huskies. Early in the fall of that first year, Kevin bitterly complained that Midwestern television stations failed to carry any Huskies football games. We gently reminded him that few Big 10 games were offered in the Seattle area. But Kevin wouldn’t be placated. He simply refused to believe that everyone (including Midwesterners) wouldn’t want to watch his glorious Huskies.
As the colors of fall gave way to the chill of winter, we began to prepare for midterm exams. These exams didn’t count toward a grade but instead offered a method for assessing whether we had any chance of passing our eventual semester exams. We studied diligently.
Many first-year students retreated to the cavernous law library to prepare for the dreaded midterms. And each night, at approximately 9 p.m., Kevin would saunter into the library. He would move from table to table of studying students and inquire, “Cheese popcorn?. . . Cheese popcorn?”
Kevin had discovered a small establishment just off campus that sold cheese popcorn. In Kevin’s mind, it was a gift from the gods. He stumbled upon the place one weekend and promptly made it a nightly pilgrimage. And he wanted everyone to enjoy his discovery. I rarely ate it. Hot out of the kettle, the popcorn was passably edible. Slightly cool, it had the consistency of talcum powder on waxed fruit, but not quite that tasty.
Kevin’s nightly ritual through the library was reminiscent of a Bill-Murray-type character. He put us at ease. He made us realize that, maybe, we were taking life a little too seriously if we couldn’t enjoy the simple pleasure of some cheese popcorn.
Similarly, Kevin organized a contingent of law students for a special treat at another of his discoveries. Early on a Sunday, Kevin corralled a dozen of us to accompany him to his favorite breakfast spot, where he was on a first-name basis with most everyone in the place. On the outskirts of town, we sat in a down-on-its-luck diner that Kevin claimed served the best western omelet in the United States (Washington State excepted, of course). The omelet was certainly an improvement over the cheese popcorn. And we were enjoying unusual aspects of life in South Bend, because Kevin insisted on it.
As exam time approached, Notre Dame was rubbing off on Kevin. You could see it in his clothes. His purple and gold Husky sweatshirts gave way to blue and gold Notre Dame attire. Similarly, Kevin was rubbing off on us.
We approached the exams not as the students in Turow’s book, who saw their classmates as rivals, but as a supportive group. Sure, we wanted good grades, but as a class we also wanted everyone to make it through, and not take ourselves, or the process, too seriously. We’d started to eat the popcorn.
After graduation, Kevin returned to his beloved Washington, where he began his legal career and a family. He beamed with pride when his son, Connor, was born. And then it came, all too quickly. Cancer. Before Connor turned 5, Kevin passed away.
Before he died, Kevin had one wish, one desire. He shared it with just a few friends. He also committed his goal to paper, in a letter that he addressed to someone he would never meet. Kevin hoped that when the time came his 4-year-old son, Connor, would be able to attend Notre Dame.
Connor is now 18 years old. Kevin’s letter (written 14 years ago) was addressed to the Notre Dame Office of Admissions. And Kevin’s classmates stepped forward. Letters from a host of Kevin’s fellow law students were submitted on Connor’s behalf. Even a former Law School dean penned a letter in hopes of making Kevin’s dream a reality.
The week of May 17, the verdict was received. Connor had been admitted to Notre Dame. Around the country, grown men and women shed a small tear of gratitude on behalf of a young man many had never met.
The acceptance letter that arrived that week was a reminder to many of us of what Notre Dame is all about. Notre Dame is not just a collection of buildings. It’s not a degree. And it’s not even defined by who might happen to give a graduation speech. Rather, Notre Dame is an experience. It creates personal bonds and deep commitments that can’t be broken. Not by time. Not by distance. Not even by death.
Bob Schultz and his wife, Audra, along with their two children, reside in Effingham, Illinois. He is the chairman of AKRA Builders, Inc. and the managing partner of the Schultz Investment Fund. He is the former chairman of the board for Catholic Charities — Springfield Diocese in Illinois. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.