Rev. David Link, Dean Turned Priest, Lived Life of Faith and Compassion

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

David Link Featured Photo by Barbara Johnston

With a pilgrim’s heart and disciple’s soul, Rev. David Link ’58, ’61J.D., walked a meandering path of providential continuity. Good-natured and kind, he was humbly effective among the powerful, a strong and tender advocate for the less fortunate and a very human, even holy, lifeline to those exiled from society. Link was 71 in 2008 when he was ordained a Catholic priest. The career move was long in coming, but it provided the rightful homestretch to a life of faith, service and social action, compassion and peace-giving. It was a move, he said, “from success to significance.”

The native of Sandusky, Ohio, had seriously considered a religious vocation as a teenager; his high school sweetheart, Barbara Winterhalter, was thinking of becoming a nun. Instead, the couple married in 1958, shortly after Link graduated from Notre Dame. Together they would advocate for civil and human rights, support justice, move by faith and lovingly raise a family. Barbara ’75 would become and remain — even after death — a guiding voice in her husband’s life journey.

After practicing law for almost a decade, Link returned in 1970 to teach at his alma mater. He became dean of the Law School five years later, a position he held for the next 24 years. During that quarter century the school grew in national prominence. Link piloted two major building projects, a library expansion and the establishment of several institutes. The student body grew in stature and the faculty more influential in their research and publishing.

The dean also directed a couple of philosophical moves that enhanced the school’s reputation. At a time when the legal profession suffered from negative perceptions, Link emphasized Notre Dame’s tradition of making moral and ethical concerns central to the study and practice of law. Notre Dame, he said, was “creating a different kind of lawyer,” one primarily dedicated to justice and human rights, intent on using the legal system to better the world. He also coaxed the competing viewpoints of sharp minds into respectful discussions among colleagues, orchestrating robust dialogue without divisive rancor or partisan imbalances.

Link’s accomplishments brought other responsibilities. During his deanship, he would become the founding president and vice chancellor of The University of Notre Dame Australia; after stepping down as dean, he served terms as the founding dean of the University of St. Thomas College of Law in Minneapolis and as provost of St Augustine College of South Africa. Despite the ease with which he navigated such corridors, he stayed true to his commitment to service and charity.

Link took up hammer and saw to build homes across the country with Habitat for Humanity and volunteered at a South Bend homeless shelter when it was managed out of a nearby church, spending a few nights each week on a cot there. Those experiences turned his sights toward an abandoned, three-story building that had once housed Gilbert’s clothing store. He and a friend, D’Arcy Chisholm ’56, a former real estate agent, each put up earnest money to begin negotiations to purchase the run-down property, despite being almost $100,000 short of the total cost — and with no idea where the rest of the funds would come from. They made the pitch to Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy, CSC, ’63, ’67M.A., ’69M.A., who shared their vision.

In December 1988, before the new shelter was primed for operation, a fire destroyed South Bend’s Morningside Hotel, which housed low-income residents. The blaze left one dead and dozens of others out on the street — and accelerated the opening of the Center for the Homeless, now a nationally recognized model for accommodating and improving the lives of the homeless. ”The University was the key to the finances,” Malloy recalled, “but it wouldn’t have happened without Dave and D’Arcy’s early involvement or their advocacy.”

Not long after, it was Barbara who told her husband he should teach a class at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, instructing inmates on how to work with lawyers. He was nervous that first time, facing 65 men who were in lockup for life. But — augmenting justice with mercy — he made his ministry there and at Westville Correctional Facility, praying, counseling, befriending, caring, treating prisoners like the human beings they were. In 2003, after Barbara died, he began going to the prison daily (needing to be needed, he explained), having found yet another calling. Then, at age 68, as he thought of becoming a priest, he consulted his good friend Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, who advised, “When the Holy Spirit calls, he doesn’t ask how old you are.”

That late-in-life vocation was also encouraged by Bishop Dale Melczek of Gary, Indiana. The prelate ordained Link as a diocesan priest in 2008, after two years of study, and blessed him along his journey as a priestly minister to the inmates he had been serving for years — and would continue to serve until his death October 28, 2021, at the age of 85.

Father Link, who often cited the Holy Spirit and his wife as guiding his life, is remembered by many for his goodness and humility, his service and leadership, his accomplishments and the example he set. His children remember all that as well — and also a father and grandfather who could make them laugh and do magic tricks and spin tales and relish the famous roller coasters at Cedar Point amusement park back in Sandusky.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.