Spry Hesburgh makes tracks with torch

Author: Ed Cohen

It was 18 degrees and felt like 3 with the wind chill. The torch weighed 3 ½ pounds. Its bearer was 84½.

Those numbers made it all the more impressive that when Father Hesburgh carried the Olympic torch past campus in January, he covered his fifth of a mile at a jog.

Notre Dame’s president emeritus was one of more than 11,500 people selected to participate in the Olympic Torch Relay, a 65-day, 13,500-mile odyssey that started in Atlanta and finished at the opening ceremonies for the games in Salt Lake City. Each honoree went a fifth of a mile or a lap around a track.

On the morning of January 4, 34 people carried the flame seven miles through South Bend, including a stretch past campus on Juniper Road, lined with cheering spectators.

One of the bearers needed no introduction either to campus or torch-carrying protocol. Mary O’Connor ‘96 traveled every inch of the relay route as Olympic communications manager for Chevrolet, co-sponsor of the relay along with Coca-Cola. She took her turn starting near Hesburgh Library after a handoff from her father, Rex O’Connor ’51J.D, a retired attorney from Ionia, Michigan.

Mary O’Connor handed off to Hesburgh, who double-timed it impressively past the Joyce Center. Subsequent torch bearers included: Notre Dame volleyball coach Debbie Brown, co-captain of the women’s U.S. Olympic volleyball team in 1980, the year the United States boycotted the Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; South Bend resident Richard McCloskey ‘67, whose daughter Katie perished in the World Trade Center attack; and Mick Franco, a staff psychologist with the University’s counseling center.

Other alumni known to have participated in the relay nationally are Steven Sitek ‘90MBA, Tim Cordes ’98, Kevin O’Connor ’98MBA and John T. (Jay) Conroy Jr. ’98MBA.

Though called a relay, most of the bearers held onto their torches and merely kindled the torch of the next person in line. That’s because participants were given the option of purchasing, for $335, the icicle-like torches, made of glass, copper and aluminum and finished with silver. Chevy bought Hesburgh’s torch for him, Mary O’Connor said.

Also, contrary to the image of a relay, the flame traveled more than four-fifths of the way — all the miles between population centers — by vehicle, not foot. The route, which passed through more than 250 cities in 46 states, including Alaska, was designed by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to allow as many people as possible to see the flame.

Chevrolet and Coca-Cola each selected 3,500 of the torch carriers with the rest named by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.