Soundings: Week Two

What we mean when we talk about “the Notre Dame family.”

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Campuspathways We take many paths from campus, but remain one Notre Dame family, our kinship rooted in a shared love of the place. Photo by Barbara Johnston

It was about 25 years ago in a meeting of department heads in University Relations that we talked about the Notre Dame family. We had been asked to stop using the term.

We’re an educational institution, we’d been told, and a business. When tough decisions are made, people respond to bad news by saying things like, “I thought this was a family,” and, “So much for the Notre Dame family.” It’d be best, we were advised, to stop using that descriptor in University materials, so that offended people would stop throwing it back when actions seemed to betray the concept of familial caring.

At that time, the institution was taking significant steps to shed its old-fashioned ways, to modernize and become more efficiently corporate. To stop doing things the way they’d always been done. Follow good business practices, big business models.

We agreed to comply. A little time passed. And I went back to describing this magazine’s 150,000 readers as the Notre Dame family.

Because it is family.

It’s a very scattered, diverse, idiosyncratic, sometimes grumpy, mostly friendly, proud assortment of people whose kinship is rooted in the shared love of the place — an affection and deep loyalty that binds us all to one another. People who, ultimately, care about each other because of the love we have for Notre Dame. Because the place itself nurtures this familial love and caring, the primacy of the human person. And the spiritual nature of it all.

In my four years as a student and four decades as an employee, I’ve seen plenty of things that have maddened me. I’ve heard from readers whose verbal assaults made me wonder how they could have spent four years on campus and still talk or write that way. I’ve retained a journalist’s healthy cynicism, have opposed trading on the mystique.

But that short-lived notion that we’re no longer family died years ago without gaining momentum, or damaging the character of the institution so many of us hold dear.

I still believe, with a somewhat renewed feeling over the past decade or so, that you’d be hard pressed to find more good people in one place than at Notre Dame.

Over the past few weeks I have seen this dedication to one another in action. The logistics of responding to COVID-19 have been enormous. Getting students home safely and expeditiously from the farthest reaches of the globe. Taking care of dozens of employees who run the international Gateway programs, from Beijing to Rome to London. Making the tough decision to advise students not to return to campus from spring break. For their health and safety.

Then launching campus-wide initiatives to ensure their education continues — somehow — remotely. IT staff working around the clock, faculty pivoting abruptly, learning new methods for teaching, many forced to wield technology more foreign to them than their students. And University leadership saddled with problems historic in nature, with no clear solution. Not even clear timetables.

Severe financial blows. Several thousand staffers dispatched to work from home. Laboratories — and the researchers’ life’s work — shut down. Sports seasons canceled. Seniors cheated out of their final semester without participating in expected traditions, the farewell tour of favorite night spots, one more spring in South Bend, those final goodbyes and group hugs. So much loss. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences evaporated. Irretrievable.

As an observer on the periphery of command centers and meeting rooms, privy only to the iceberg tips of painful deliberations, looped in virtually via Zoom and email, I’ve seen people coming together in uplifting ways, and their most important concern is taking care of people.

Everyone here on campus really feels for the students. They put themselves out to help get things done right, and with sensitivity. 

Whether it’s the top-level administrators, the faculty, the rectors and folks in student affairs, the staff who boxed and shipped the stuff students left behind, the primary motivation has been taking care of the students, trying to help this disruption in life be as painless as possible. The institution doing its best to take care of its own.

I’ve also heard from people in the admissions office concerned about next fall’s first-year students and taking steps to foster those relationships. And from people in the Alumni Association opening new paths to communicate with Notre Dame’s 130,000 graduates during this rough period of social distancing. And I’ve heard from those who so appreciate the Masses telecast from campus, and how they help them feel close to the place at a time of isolation and insecurity. And maybe a little fear.

When I thought about all this reaching out, I thought about all the Notre Dame people — the students at home now living with parents, the alumni who are doctors and health care workers, the devastated small business owners and their employees now out of work, the ones threatened by the virus, and with loved ones threatened by the virus, those in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, the teachers trying to teach, the restaurant and hotel people and those in the auto industry, in manufacturing and travel and education and volunteer service, social programs, those helping the homeless and less fortunate, the elderly and the very young. Parents and grandparents.  

The Notre Dame family. All over the world affected by COVID-19.

One of the great hallmarks of the human race, I think, is how people come together in times of tragedy and stress. And this has been inspiringly true of the Notre Dame family.

Campus is center and symbol of this family enterprise. It’s where the friendships were made, the teacher-student relationships grown, where the Notre Dame experience stamped its indelible mark on all of us. It’s not the only place where the Notre Dame family lives. We take it with us as we go.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.