One More Song from the Sorin Porch

The long-gone, all-male days were rough and rowdy — and not without rodents and roaches — but the memories are forever set to music.

Author: Edward R. Ricciuti '59

Class president Joe Mulligan ’59, the South Bend-based communicative glue that holds our dwindling brotherhood of graduates together, sent me a photo of Sorin Hall festooned with Christmas wreaths and a banner proclaiming that “Sorin College” was founded in 1969. He emailed it after I complained to him about this magazine crediting residents of the hall “who opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s” with declaring Sorin an independent college and seceding from the University.

That may be so, but the idea was not original. I remember banter within the walls of Sorin during my junior and senior years there about posting a “Sorin College” sign and seceding to join the Ivy League. And we may have picked up the idea from Sorinites before us.

Some of us even toyed with the idea of stretching across the rear of the hall an outsized strap with a buckle in the middle — like that on the back of then-fashionable Ivy League trousers. We never got around to it but a couple of the guys did hang a rebellious banner with the words “Sigma Epsilon Chi” on the porch, suggesting that the hall had become the most anathema of institutions to Notre Dame mores: a fraternity house.

In truth, life in Sorin was the closest thing Notre Dame had to a tame version of Animal House during those gritty all-male days. By today’s standards, Sorin culture was barely a tad quirky, but back then our ordered existence was so austere that one reference called the University “the Catholic West Point.” Indeed, ND was considered respectable enough that cadets from the real thing were allowed to bunk in our halls one football weekend. 

In my day, the “man” in “Notre Dame man” was in literal. We secretly dreamed of colleges with playful coeds and no rules while exalting our toughness for suffering through the monastic solitude of cold winters, relieved only on an occasional covert slug of Falstaff (it was a beer brand, kids). We reveled in what now would be scorned as toxic masculinity, displayed on football weekends when Sorinites held up large cards numbered 1 to 5, grading the looks of females who passed by the Sorin porch, where we held revels before games. Inappropriate ethnic banter was rife, particularly between Irish and Italians.

Living next door to me was Mark Shields ’59, whose wit was as sharp then as eventually it would be as a television political pundit. He tormented me by repeatedly singing a Boston Irish ditty guaranteed to ignite my Italian temper. Unable to match his wit, I tried brawn and exploded after him but he locked himself in his room until I gave up pounding on his door.

For we happy few who lived there, Sorin was to the other undeniably bland halls of the day as Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel is to a Holiday Inn. It had a unique personality, a vibrant character, a buzz.

It was steeped in the tradition described in this magazine story on the hall’s renovation. At a time when tailgating was minimal — open drinking by underage students was a capital offense — the Sorin porch, with a band and inhabitants fueled by illicit booze swallowed on the sly, was a campus hotspot. Crowds sometimes 10-deep, happily including lots of females, gathered before the steps to watch the performance. Most of the beer and whiskey imbibed during porch celebrations came from illicit stashes in the legendary Sorin basement.

If Sorin was unique among dorms, its basement was even more so, another world. The basement, by University lifestyle at the time, was like Tombstone without a marshal. It was the only floor on campus not under the eye of a prefect, a priest who lived there to keep students in bounds — an RA with teeth, so to speak. Chances of being caught with the door closed while a female was visiting were much less down below ground and knavery in general was easier to commit than elsewhere.

Walt, the campus cop, seldom if ever left his station by the hall entrance to descend into our subterranean realm. He did so once, upon hearing the sound of tumult arising from below. The sight of me and my two roommates battling in the hall, growling, smashing into walls — for fun — sent him skittering up the stairs back to his post.

Our room, in the northwest tower, was hidden from general view, its windows at ground level made for malefactors sneaking in after nighttime curfew, avoiding apprehension by Walt at the first floor entrance.

Tower rooms in the basement — later subdivided — were the best lodgings on campus for their size and, especially, their location away from supervisory eyes. I was allowed to live there, and in Sorin itself, only after a brutal inquisition by the prefect of discipline’s office. Sorin was reserved for students of good behavior and academic excellence, the basement even more so. I was not one of them, but pleaded that my hoped-for roommates, Larry Melody ’59 and John O’Neill ’59, would set a good example for me. Amazingly, it worked, landing me in Sorin even if not improving my grades or my dismal disciplinary record.

Sorin Porch
Sorin residents on the porch, circa 1950s. On game days, the porch became a place of ribaldry and revelry. Notre Dame Archives

Like other dungeons, the Sorin basement had a varied vermin fauna. Says George Vander Vennet ’59: “One of my memories is watching the roaches race down the hall at night.” Classmates Paul Willihnganz ’59 and Tony Berejka ’59 reminded me how electrical engineers rigged a trap that fried mice when they tried to grab a hunk of cheese between two electrodes. The same bunch rigged what probably was the most innovative of all illicit lights.  All dorm rooms on campus were switched dark at 11 p.m., but this clandestine contraption provided illumination with the added feature that it switched off if anyone opened the door to the room where it was aglow. 

Recently, Sorin mate Fred Lavin ’59 revealed to me that those with connections could evade lights out without penalty. Sorin rector Father Tom McDonagh, CSC, ’38 “found out a bunch of us were avid bridge players,” Lavin says, “and several times invited us into his room/suite to play bridge with him and snack until well after 11 p.m. lights out.”

We spent considerable energy getting around rules. Senior year, Sorin hallmates Paul Anderson ’59 and Jack McGrath ’59 managed to evade the prohibition on having a car by buying a clunker — with a hole in the floor — from an electrical engineering Ph.D. who was going home to India. It had an ND auto sticker, making it approved in the eyes of University authorities. They kept it at the off-campus home of a married classmate.

With a 19-year-old’s bad judgement, I once left a bar on Chicago’s Rush Street — then a world-famed nightlife mecca — at 2 a.m. on a cold winter Saturday night and started hitchhiking back to South Bend. A series of drivers picked me up in downtown Chicago but only got me part of the way back to campus. By late morning I was at a toll booth near South Bend and almost hypothermic. Using the toll collector’s phone, I called the Sorin telephone and shortly thereafter that clunker arrived to save me.

That wasn’t the only rescue the car made. McGrath was picked by police trying to hitch a ride to Pittsburgh for Easter vacation. They tossed him into a cell in Elkhart, under $100 bail. He called the Sorin phone and George Clements ’59 answered. “I had stayed on campus for the Easter break our junior year and thus was about the only one in Sorin when frantic Jack called for help,” Clements says. Although he does not remember where he got the cash, Clements bailed out McGrath and drove him to the next toll plaza to continue his journey home.

Clements also figured in an episode that made him a martyr for the cause of Sorin’s right to free expression, in print and song. The raucous Sorin porch celebrations on football weekends sparked the disapproval of a new vice president of student affairs, Father George Bernard ’45, who took office our senior year. He issued an edict that banned music during porch festivities. Clements, editor of Scholastic, had battled Bernard from the get-go over what could be published in the magazine. After Clements editorialized against the ban, he was removed as editor.

That was not the end of his troubles. Says Clements, “I promptly got drunk the evening after I ran my final editorial and was stopped going to a dance with the president of the senior class at Saint Mary’s. I was stopped at the door to the dance by one of the priests who sent my date back to Saint Mary’s by cab. I was suspended for the drinking. I think the priests were happy to use that as the reason.” The original suspension was for a semester but after several classmates asked Father Hesburgh for leniency, it was reduced to 10 days. 

The music prohibition ended the weekly renditions of the “Roncalli Rock,” right after Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was installed as Pope John XXIII during football season our senior year. Someone in the hall — it might have been prize-winning author-to-be John Bellairs ’59 — composed the song, which got onlookers clapping and singing along with the porch performers. The melody was stolen from a then-popular song “Western Movies” by The Olympics. The rip-off Roncalli version went a little something like this:

Standin’ in the square and I sure am beat

Been here all day and I can’t get a seat

Been here all night and the smoke’s not white

Guess we’re not goin’ to have a pope tonight

 There goes the smoke — cool man it’s white

 Guess that we’re gonna have a pope tonight

That song has always resonated in my mind, where it is as clear as ever. I thought of it last fall when my children took my wife and me to the UNLV game for our 60th wedding anniversary. Saturday morning, I took them to Sorin Hall, hoping to show my grandson, a lacrosse and hockey player at Bishop Fenwick High in Peabody, Massachusetts, how I spent my football weekends.

The doors to the hall, which in my time were packed with people coming and going, were locked. The porch was empty. For a few seconds, though, I saw it filled with animated half-recognizable figures and almost heard banned music.

Ed Ricciuti has been reporting and writing for 60 years and teaches martial arts near his home in Killingworth, Connecticut.