Tales Out of School . . . Academic Exploits

Author: Notre Dame Magazine

Burned out

I never thought of myself as a rule-breaker until my senior year at Notre Dame. My risk aversion has roots in a very cautious and loving mother who warned me about the perils of college life, and so my entire freshman year I never once left the safety of campus grounds. Now, as a senior, that caution was flung into the wind tunnel of South Quad. I was done with playing it safe, and I was especially done with my senior design class. After multiple iterations of slide decks, Excel financial models and the design of a chemical process plant to produce fake sugar — aspartame — a semester’s worth of work had piled up on my modular desk in McGlinn Hall.

Staring at this pile one evening after finals, I was struck by the idea that simply throwing it away was somehow not fitting given the monumental effort required to create it.

“I’m burning my senior design notes,” read the text. “Wanna help?”

It was a weeknight and we had only a few minutes before parietals, but my friend and fellow engineer from a men’s dorm across campus replied, “Be right there.”

I wish I could say it was a wonderfully bright and majestic blaze, but the sogginess of the South Bend air bested our mini lighter and we only achieved a moderate flame. But that was all I needed for catharsis and a bittersweet goodbye to four years of my ND experience.

— Maura (Vrabel) Brown ’18


Engineering a comeback

Six a.m. Days before Christmas. We shuffled from professorial office to professorial office in the Cushing Hall of Engineering, looking at the sheets taped on the doors with final grades next to our anonymous ID numbers. My sophomore study-buddy and I absorbed the bad news with false aplomb and insouciance.

Calculus: D and C. Physics: C and F.

It went on like this for six dismal doors. We shuffled back to our gloomy dorm humbled, contrite, scared.

Sophomore means “wise fool,” and we’d thought we had it figured out. Apparently not. Too much partying, chasing girls, sleeping in and sloughing classes means academic probation. Our parents are going to kill us, we thought. They didn’t. Our old-school, working-class dads just asked us what we were going to do to keep from failing out of our fancy-schmancy trophy school. Study harder, own the problem, we promised. And we did.

At the Engineering Honor Awards dinner the day before graduation, we sat with our groundling friends and applauded politely as the smart kids received their awards. Near the end they presented a special award for technical writing, and they called my name. Our group went wild to have one of us included with the elite and standing on that stage.

My study-buddy shot off a bottle of champagne. Afterward, as I caught up with my parents and showed them my plaque, my mom said, “You were the only one up there without a tie.”

Yes, but I was up there.

— Matt Lindon ’79



As an engineering major, increasing my GPA was desirable, but for my pre-med roommates it was an obsession. They were always on the lookout for a class that could pad their medical school applications with minimal effort. The class they identified was called Child Development. I could use the boost to my GPA as well, so I decided to join my roommates.

The only problem was a prerequisite, Psychology 101, that I had neither the time nor desire to take, but I signed up for Child Development hoping no one would notice. Halfway through the semester, I received a letter from the psychology department informing me they had caught the error, and I might receive an incomplete in the class. I was summoned to meet the department chair the following week. I was incensed and ranted to anyone who would listen about the injustice of my predicament. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate.

I went to the psychology office on the appointed day and on the door was a note addressed to me. It said, “Dear Jim, I have been forced to move the meeting location. Please go to the men’s room down the hall. I will be in the third stall.”

As I looked down the hall, I could see one of my roommates smiling and laughing. I was half-furious about being fooled and half-relieved that I would be graduating after all.

I don’t know what my final GPA was, but I got an A in Child Development.

— Jim Ackerson ’87

Tales Out Of School

Putting the A in atonement

Late one night in June 1963 as I lay my head on my pillow, I heard the ruffle of paper. It was an opened telegram, placed there by my mother, which read, “Your rights and privileges at the University of Notre Dame have been rescinded because of academic and disciplinary deficiencies.”

This former class president, all-conference athlete and Optimist Club Boy of the Year was now a college flunk-out.

My mechanic dad had arranged a summer job for me working in Detroit’s truck repair industry. Hanging out in the local taverns with money was fun, but in September, when my friends returned to college, something was missing. As winter arrived, I recognized that a return to South Bend was necessary.

I unsuccessfully reapplied but requested a meeting with the admissions office and Rev. A. Leonard Collins, CSC, ’38. That spring I drove to campus and petitioned to take two classes at summer school. If A’s were earned, readmission was possible. I was enrolled in William Leahy’s Principles of Economics and Frank O’Malley’s Modern Catholic Writers classes.

I met the objective and graduated in 1966.

Most of the good things in my life, and there have been many, are because of Notre Dame. My wife, Sandy Matheson Mier SMC ’66, my beautiful family, my closest friends and my career are all the result of my attendance at this University. None of it would have occurred without the summer of 1963.

Thank you, Notre Dame. I am forever endeared.

— Art Mier ’66


Dangerous curves

Spring semester freshman year I took Enhanced Calculus II with 30 other math enthusiasts. We covered the same material as mainstream calculus but also learned about the original problems that inspired the invention of elegant solution techniques. We were all living our best lives, until the first exam.

After knocking off the first few questions, I became alarmed that I couldn’t solve the rest. Everyone else reached a similar level of despair. Instead of pencils scratching on paper, the only sounds were exam pages being flipped in search of a solvable item, and a bit of quiet sobbing. Apparently, the exams in the course were also enhanced.

When the professor handed back our exams, my paper was branded with 34 out of 100. The professor began reviewing the proper solution techniques, until a student asked about a curve. The professor nonchalantly wrote “40” and “20” on the board. “If you did better than this, then you can assume you have an A, and if below this you should see me after class.” The sense of relief among the students was palpable.

The remaining unit exams were similarly enhanced, and I was proud to earn a 42 on one of them. I set a goal of breaking the curve on the final.

All these years later, I still remember the thrill of finding a 73 next to my student ID number on the results page posted on our O’Shaughnessy Hall classroom door as I left for summer break.

— Michael Mader ’83


How theology saved the rugby club

First class day, September 1968, freshman theology. Department chair Rev. James Burtchaell, CSC, ’56, delivers a speech I will never forget. “You will hear from fellow freshmen that theology is ‘fun’ and an easy grade. Not here. We will read and discuss the entire Bible, and weekly you will submit a typed, three-page paper. Very few of you will earn A’s or B’s. Most will get C’s. Some will suffer D’s or worse.”

We came to realize that Burtchaell wasn’t teaching us theology as much as how rigorous and competitive higher education can be. The price I paid for that valuable knowledge was a C. Message taken.

Fast forward: Spring 1971. Possible termination of the rugby club was on the table after its disastrous spring break trip to Ireland. Father Hesburgh turned the matter over to Burtchaell, now the provost.

The athletic department assigned me, the newly elected club secretary, to write a stay-of-execution request. All transgressions in Ireland were perpetrated by graduating seniors, I noted, further suggesting that allowing 50 ruggers to tour a foreign country with zero adult supervision wasn’t a stellar decision.

Athletics accused me of having a law student write the letter. The provost knows me, I replied. See what he thinks.

My hard-earned C paid its first dividend. Burtchaell bought my arguments, canceled the firing squad and put rugby on probation. We lived to play again.

— Phil Calandra ’72

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