Shuttle Driver

Author: Ken Bradford '76

Photos by Matt Cashore '94

This is how I met my new friend, the Naked Klunker.

 

I was driving a shuttle van on the opening day of the annual Notre Dame reunion when a guy named Ed, from the Class of 1974, needed a ride from the Dorr Road parking lot to the registration center.

 

It’s about a six-minute ride. In that amount of time, I learned he’s living in Pennsylvania now but had lived in South Bend after graduation and had coached the sons of one of my friends in Little League. We swapped stories of our time on campus and in South Bend, but all the while I’m thinking, “I know this guy from some other time or place.”

 

I dropped him off to register and two things suddenly occurred to me. One, Ed had left his umbrella in my van. Two, he almost certainly had been the Naked Klunker during the 1973 football season.

 

For those of you from different eras, I may need to explain. In the early 1970s, the Notre Dame marching band would play “The Stripper Theme” at the end of the third quarter of home football games. If I recall correctly, the cheerleaders would perform a fairly chaste routine on the field during that song.

 

But in 1972, my freshman year, a senior known only as the Naked Kahuna was hoisted in the air by his classmates and he deftly removed his clothes, all the way down to his gaudy underwear. It briefly became as much of a tradition as the traffic warnings by Sgt. Tim McCarthy or the playing of the “1812 Overture.”

 

When the Kahuna graduated, Ed became the stripper — the Naked Klunker.

 

Chance meetings with people like Ed are the reason I look forward to my four days of driving each spring on the Notre Dame campus. They ride, I listen and learn.

 

Some 3,500 alumni come to the reunions, park their cars in faraway lots and use our free shuttle service to get from place to place. There are about 40 of us shuttle drivers, plus dozens of dispatchers and coordinators.

 

For some, it’s a nice little payday. The most hardcore of the drivers put in almost 50 hours over the four-day period. We’re treated well, by the University and the alumni, but I’m ready for a three-hour nap Sunday afternoon after we turn in our keys.

 

I’ve been a shuttle driver for nine years, since my retirement from the South Bend Tribune, skipping a year just once to attend my own reunion. I enjoy spending time with fellow grads from the Class of ’76, but given the choice, I enjoy the driving more. I hear new stories and live in other eras vicariously through them.

 

I love the Class of 1952, for example. When they’re in town, I’m going to hear about the Milk Riot. The stories will go something like this: In February 1952, students in the South Dining Hall discovered their daily milk rations had been decreased by 20 percent with the change from 10-ounce to eight-ounce glasses.

 

Two versions of the story exist. One has a student deciding to protest by pushing his food tray off the end of the table, and dozens of others doing the same. The other version says a glass was hurled against the wall. In any case, hundreds of glasses were shattered that evening, creating such a mess that the university brought back the larger cups — and, eventually, replaced glass with plastic.

 

I’m not sure of the year, but there’s an even better story about the Suit Coat Protest. The university had a rule in the late 1950s that students needed to wear jackets and ties to dinner every night. Some students tried to get the dress code changed, but the administration stood firm.

 

I believe the first volley came when a few students showed up in the required jackets and ties — but no pants. When they were told they must wear pants, the protesters came back with pants but without socks and shoes.

 

The protest escalated to the point, from the stories I was told, that students began showing up for dinner in jackets smeared with several days’ worth of mashed potatoes and gravy. The policy changed.

 

Many other stories from the older alums are more personal, though equally naughty. Over the years, I’ve heard of narrow escapes involving the legendary prefect of discipline, Black Mac McCarragher. On the opposite end, I’ve often heard alumni speak of that single moment when a professor’s remark — “You would make a great lawyer,” for example — would open the doors to different possibilities.

 

I hear stories partly because I ask a lot of questions. If you’re from the Class of 1952, I’ll ask where you were during the Milk Riot. If you’re from the Class of 1969, I might ask about Father Hesburgh’s famous 15-minute rule that ended an antiwar protest, closed the campus and may have prevented the ROTC building from being burned down.

 

A second trick is to share stories of my own. My class was the 76ers, and I can tell a tale or two about the first years of coeducation, or I can testify that not a single person near me was chanting “Rudy!” in the closing seconds of the final home game against Georgia Tech.

 

If the conversation goes that way, I can share memories as well about Father Hesburgh. But if we’re talking about heroes, I always nominate Al Sondej.

 

When I was a freshman in 1972, Al would stand outside the dining halls noon and night with a milk jug to collect donations for world hunger relief. He was one of the first people I had ever met who showed me that small sacrifices, literally nickels and dimes, could change the world. Later, Al was a volunteer firefighter while working on a master’s degree in Maryland, and he died when he ran into a burning building to save some children. Once, when I finished my sad story, my passenger said quietly, “He was my roommate.”

 

I have had memorable passengers. One Sunday morning, there was a call for a pickup at the Morris Inn. The man who entered my van there was Tom Hawkins, one of the school’s all-time great basketball players. He had a couple places to go — the Basilica, the Grotto and bookstore, among them — so we had about 20 minutes to reminisce about all the players he met during his era, from Oscar Robertson to Bill Russell to Jerry West to Wilt Chamberlain. Those were my idols during my growing-up years. His hero? Father Hesburgh.

 

Several times, I had the pleasure of driving Dick Savage to alumni events. The last surviving member of the Class of 1930, Dick always had a new story for me — about his first ride from Chicago to South Bend as a stowaway on a freight train, about his exploits as a track star, about his firsthand experiences with Knute Rockne. Each story was a delight, precise in detail and delivered with a clever punchline. When he died in 2013 at the age of 105, I mourned the loss of all the stories I would never hear.

 

A couple years back, I met a 1972 Saint Mary’s alum who was an attorney working with national nonprofits that were losing funding because of federal budget cuts. This year, I listened as an attorney from the Class of 1979 talked about a policy institute that is searching for ways to bring civility back to political discourse. Both times, when they reached their destinations and left the shuttle, I felt like someone had yanked the plug during my favorite NPR show.

 

I’ll admit I’ve pulled my van over a few times. Once a fellow journalist and I were trading stories about projects we had done and books we had written. Another time, one of the early leaders of the student radio station began reminiscing about his adventures as a wild young man trying to fit in on a conservative campus in the early 1960s.

 

And then there was this other time.

 

It was going to be my last drive of the night and I was taking an alumna back to her dorm from the refreshment tent. I asked my usual question about family, and she said her husband wasn’t with her. A couple questions later, I found out he was in jail, awaiting trial on a murder charge.

 

Then she had this question for me: “What do you think about evil in this world?”

 

Mc 5Reunion attendees at the stadium refreshment hub

Her larger issue was, does evil come into us from the outside, or is it already in us and trying to get out. We sat in the dark in a dorm parking lot and talked about our deepest beliefs, about books we had read, the people we had known and what we need to do now, living without this certainty we desperately need.

 

I’ve learned it is a mistake to think that all alumni return to campus in jolly moods. This year, an alum from the Class of 1954 told me he was here because it was his wife’s dying wish, just a month earlier, that he return to this place. In our six minutes together, I held back tears as he went through the list of family members and medical professionals who had helped him through the terrible days. At that moment, my own 94-year-old mother-in-law was gravely ill in a Cincinnati hospital.

 

I meet a lot of people in various stages of dementia, returning with family to familiar grounds where some of their best memories still lie. Their visits here may be bittersweet, but this is a place where they are welcomed and loved.

 

Too often, I embarrass myself. A few years back, our van passed the new ice rink, and a passenger asked how the Compton family got their name on a building at Notre Dame. Oddly, I had been to a staff information event months earlier where the current cost of naming rights was discussed. In full storytelling mode, I announced, “You can cure cancer, you can walk on the moon, you can win the Heisman Trophy, but if you don’t pay $14 million, someone else’s name goes on the building.”

 

Moments later, in the Duncan Hall parking lot, the last man out of the van, offering me a wink, a broad grin and a firm handshake, was Johnny Lattner, the 1953 Heisman Trophy winner.

 

Another time, four men from the Class of 1971 were in my van as I went into big-mouth mode again, talking about how lucky they were to be on campus during the glory years of basketball star Austin Carr. My passengers were silent, so I asked if they were basketball fans. It turned out that all four had been Carr’s teammates, and one was Jackie Meehan, whose single-game assist record of 17 still stands.

 

In retrospect, maybe I should have asked their opinions of the Naked Klunker instead.

I should finish that story now. A few minutes after I dropped Ed off at the registration desk, I found him again. He asked for his umbrella, and I sheepishly asked if he had been the Naked Klunker.

 

He laughed. No one calls him that anymore. He also remembered how the administration was not amused by the striptease act. Someone — I’m betting it was the provost or the dean of students — identified Ed through photos, and Ed was told he would be expelled if he stripped again. Like most of us facing those options, he did as he was told.

 

It’s been 45 years since he graduated. One of his missions at this reunion was to see if he could find a copy of the Naked Klunker photo that ran in the Dome yearbook.

 

His is a common yearning. Alumni come back because something they crave may still be here. It goes far beyond the gold hat you get at your 50-year reunion. I believe we’re looking for our place.

 

People gather in residence halls that didn’t exist during their youth to repeat stories, many of them for the hundredth time. These tales of the Milk Riot, Bob Gladieux’s touchdown catch against Michigan State in 1966 and Father Hesburgh’s 15-minute order often are sacred words to us. They identify and bind us. Like readings in church, they give us comfort in a common place and remind us how we belong.

 

We are fortunate to share and be defined by all these stories, including the ones about the Naked Klunker.

 


Ken Bradford is a freelance writer and former reporter and editor at the South Bend Tribune.