The Abiding Presence of the Place

Author: Kenneth L. Woodward ’57


I have always tried to maintain a measured distance between myself and Notre Dame. Like a fetching woman of uncertain age, the University looks best to me from some point midway between close up, where ordinary human blemishes show, and far away, where her distinctive beauty blurs. Enchantment thrives on distance so that memory can do its work.

Make no mistake: Despite its muscular reputation, Notre Dame has always evoked the feminine in those who love her—though less so, perhaps, now that real women live and study there than when it was a males-only campus. “Alma mater,” we call her, but also “Notre Dame, Our Mother.” Men feminize the earth they till, the ships they sail, the fighter planes they fly. Who else but Catholic priests speak of “Holy Mother the Church"?

I write from memory now, evoking Notre Dame from a different time, with the feel of a different place. The places we remember best are the ones where once we fell in love. I fell in love at Notre Dame—not at first, certainly, but at last and many times in between. The last was with the young woman I met and later married from the school across the lake. We shared the campus as a dating couple for only those final spendthrift weeks between spring break and commencement. It was, as Bogie said, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The loves that happened in between were with the books and the ideas and the worlds that certain beloved professors, males all, introduced to us. There is an eros of the mind as well as of the flesh. I can still remember, with almost tactile recall, when and where and with whom these intellectual seductions took place. I remember because I was very young then and these encounters were also introductions to my emergent self.

I have been back to Notre Dame many times in the 50 years since I officially said goodbye, and not just to watch the Fighting Irish at sport. At different times two sons discovered their own Notre Dame, and so did my daughter at Saint Mary’s. I recognized that their Notre Dames were not my own, though that took a while to accept. The generations inhabit different times, even when inhabiting the same familiar space.

Shared spaces

I walk the campus these days much as a tourist does, inspecting now this, now that new building, astonished by the lengthening quads. It takes a bicycle to arrive on time at the places I once easily reached on foot. Inevitably, my mind shrinks the campus to the old places I knew, places where people I did not know became classmates yoked for life by chance and a far less scrupulous admissions policy. (There were no SATs to take in those bygone days—I went to Notre Dame only because my brother was already there, and he went only because his best friend in high school was heading there too.) The parameters of our Notre Dame end where last we left our footprints.

There are precincts of the campus everyone has trod, shared places where succeeding generations readily connect because the buildings there were once briefly—lastingly—their own. I speak especially of the old central quad where the past is always present because it is so thoroughly embedded: in the domed Main Building with its murals, Sacred Heart basilica with its crypt below and fleur-de-lis above, Corby with its rocking chairs and long front porch, labyrinthine Saint Ed’s and turreted Sorin with its top stone step curved under and worn smooth.

“Our blood is on these bricks,” Frank O’Malley, the legendary English professor, liked to say. Part of what he meant, I think, is the way that certain buildings are invested with stored human experience. At Notre Dame, many of the oldest residence halls are named after the priests and presidents who built the University brick by brick—Sorin and Walsh, Cavanaugh and Zahm and Morrissey. To live in them is to participate in the household memory of the host Holy Cross community. That long institutional memory spontaneously becomes a dimension of our own.

In the jargon of today, the campus I knew 50 years ago was an enclosed human habitat. Beyond it, there weren’t many places in South Bend to attract students except a few crowded bars (chiefly Joer’s) and cheap Italian restaurants where pizza was king. Besides, the parietal hours that regulated freshman year—in the dorm by 10 p.m., room lights out by 11—functioned rather like those electronic invisible fences that keep dogs from straying from your yard. After hours, I crammed for more than one exam in the communal toilet, the one place in every dorm where the lights stayed on all night.

Back then, Notre Dame still had one foot in the French boarding-school tradition, the other in the American system of in loco parentis. In the ’50s, there was a popular movie about a college freshman (played by Jeanne Crain) and the title nicely translated the meaning of the Latin: Take Care of My Little Girl.

Habitats foster habits, which was the purpose behind the University as parental substitute. Early “morning checks” three times a week were designed to encourage weekday Mass attendance in the hall chapel. Quiet hours in the evening after dinner meant no listening to the radio or phonograph (television was still in its blinking early stages and no student owned one) so you could actually study in your room. Lights out was a reminder that even away at college there were still only 24 hours in a day. We got the message.

The residence halls themselves were segregated according to class level, so you always lived with age-mates. This arrangement, too, had a purpose. Students were expected to mature and act accordingly when they became upperclassmen, and some of us actually did. There were real if unmarked thresholds to be crossed: We learned to discard the pop music we listened to in high school (unless it was Sinatra) and move up to jazz and classical fare. We even learned to dress differently (blue jeans had yet to become the universal uniform of unending youth) as we progressed toward graduation. Gilbert’s, the on-campus clothing store, sold stacks of chino slacks, button-down shirts and Harris tweed sport coats with labels sewn inside to prove the fabric’s Scottish origin. I wear them yet.

Priests among us
The priests who lived among us in the dorms, I always thought, were the ones who really suffered from the in loco parentis system. The rector was the in-house disciplinarian, of course, while the others, one to a floor, tried hard to be chums. They were the real martyrs to the system. I can still see the distinguished historian, Father Thomas McAvoy, CSC, in dressing gown and sleeping cap, pleading for quiet from rowdy returning students on weekend nights.

Each dorm also had its own resident chaplain. The one in my freshman hall hung a sign on his door: “If you have a problem, come in and tell me about it. If you don’t have any problems, come in and tell me how you do it.” Had I accepted the invitation, I might have told him that socially and emotionally my freshman year was a mostly miserable experience. At a ratio of 10 Notre Dame men to each woman at Saint Mary’s, what chance had a lowly freshman to get a weekend date?

Then, as now, nearly all the students were Catholics. Our mandatory classes in religion were rarely more than reviews of what we had already learned. It would be several years before undergraduates other than seminarians were allowed to study real theology. I suspect the religion professors didn’t much like the courses either: They remind me now of the professors of atheism I interviewed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s who hated the mandatory apologetics courses they taught to students who saw no need to defend their disbelief.

Sophomore year ended in an intellectual rite of passage: We had to declare a major. There were fewer departments then in the College of Arts and Letters but enough variety to make the mind pause over choices. Professors stood by long tables in then-new O’Shaughnessy Hall to tout the virtues of history, sociology, political science and the like. I approached O’Malley, who stood silent sentry at the English table, and asked what I might expect from a major in English. What he said was this: “Mr. Woodward [in those days, students all had last names, whereas now they have only first] to be an English major is a way of life.” Under his tutelage that was what it was.

Professor O’Malley
I want to linger over O’Malley for a moment, not to add luster to his legend but to locate through him what a Catholic education at Notre Dame—at its best and most engaging—was meant to be. He arrived at Notre Dame as a student in 1928 and never left the place, living much of the time in campus residence halls, among the students who were his life. O’Malley was imbued with the spirit of European Catholic humanism, and in his courses he taught from the fullness of that enlivening perspective. That is where we, his students, learned about the warp and weave of the Catholic tradition. His course in the Philosophy of Literature, taught over two semesters, swept from Plato to D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. His elective on Modern Catholic Writers embraced such spiritual thinkers as Soren Kierkegaard and Nikolai Berdyaev, who were not Catholics, as well as writers like Cardinal Newman and Christopher Dawson, who were major figures in what at the time was called “the Catholic Renaissance.” Serious students in architecture and engineering as well as science and the arts signed up for O’Malley’s classes.

There was, he showed us, a Catholic way of seeing and thinking—broadly human, decisively Incarnational—to which we were the fortunate heirs. From that perspective, we came to understand, the purpose of a Catholic education was to enable each of us in our chosen ways to “redeem the times.” In other words, he challenged us to transform the world we were about to enter, not merely graduate and join the affluent postwar crowd.

As a teacher, mentor and passionate goad, O’Malley was the sort of figure who would, alas, be impossible to replicate now at any university. He never earned a doctorate—refused, in fact, a fellowship from Princeton to obtain one. During his electrifying lectures, O’Malley rarely looked up from the podium and so discouraged classroom give-and-take. Students who wanted to question him were welcome to do so over drinks at the downtown bars where O’Malley held his evening “informal colloquia.” Many of us took him up on that several times a week. We never saw him eat. He drank heavily, chain-smoked cigarettes (though never in the classroom, as some other professors did) and never wrote a book.

He was lavish in the grades he handed out, not because all his students deserved a passing grade but because he felt his copious comments on students’ essays (always in red ink) were more important. The best insights from these student essays found their way into his formal lectures. We were all, he believed, collaborators in an on-going impersonal process he called “the work.” And so we were made to feel. O’Malley died in 1974, but when the University celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1991, several hundred of his former students going back to the 1930s—businessmen, physicians and lawyers as well as writers, teachers and journalists—returned to Notre Dame to celebrate the difference he had made in their lives. For a man who had no children of his own, he fathered quite a bloodline.

Frank O’Malley was not the only Notre Dame professor who unselfishly mentored the young, though he was surely the most eager and intense. In the intimate General Program of liberal arts, adapted from the famous Great Books program at the University of Chicago, seminars often featured two professors arguing with each other over the interpretation of texts, thereby modeling Socratic dialogue for their students. Informally, such faculty poets as Ernest Sandeen, John Frederick Nims and John Logan nurtured talented writers among their students. Aspiring journalists found ready after-class mentors in Thomas Stritch and James Withey. We came to know and cherish these teachers, in and out of class, because they first took pains to know and cherish us.

Intellectual vitality
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to meet with many students while lecturing at nearly a hundred colleges and universities. During each visitation what I’ve looked for, as a measure of a school’s intellectual vitality, are outlets where the minority of curious and creative students can collect and hash out the problems of the universe. At Notre Dame in the ’50s, students of this mind and bent gravitated toward such formal campus groups as the Bookmen (for those excited by literature) and the Wranglers (for those interested in philosophical issues). Each had a faculty moderator, and at their meetings, amid a flourishing of cigarettes and pipes, students read papers and then critiqued them in a kind of foretaste of graduate-school life.

Out of these circles came students who won a surprising number of Danforth, Fulbright and Marshall fellowships, and even a Rhodes Scholarship or two. A wall inside O’Shaughnessy Hall still bears their plaques. It is one of my favorite campus shrines. O’Malley was the campus liaison for these programs, and as each new winner was announced he’d mutter, as if in disbelief, “By God, we are good.” Even he fed on outside affirmation from higher education’s elites.

The Bookmen and the Wranglers disappeared in the 1960s, when political activism and community service began to define “social concern.” But in their day they were designed to bring together budding intellectuals (including some who never flowered) on a campus that offered no ring of coffee shops, cafes, unauthorized student publications or smoky barrooms where, as at much larger universities, intellectually restless undergraduates could meet, drink, write, publish or plot the overthrow of society.

To be sure, the 1950s were not noted for overt student activism, much less mindless acting-out. But we did hold mock-elections in presidential election years, an opportunity for future politicians (I think of classmate Tom Judge ’57, who later became Montana’s youngest governor) to hone their organizational skills. And there were signs that the collective mood on campus was shifting. Although it was never recorded in the pages of that year’s Dome, in 1956 some of us mounted a public student protest against a visiting vice president, Richard Nixon—a hint of turbulence to come.

Even so, Notre Dame has always been a sequestering place. Students bent on achieving a 4.0 GPA can hunker down with minimum distraction, if they want, and the career-minded can shape their curricula like a robber plots a heist. But the students I remember best were less goal-oriented, looser at the joints. For one thing, we were required from the start to take a minimum of 18 class hours a semester, and some took 21. This meant that there was ample opportunity, at least by senior year, to elect courses from professors outside one’s major whose reputations preceded them like must-read books. We audited courses, too, dropping in like kids with a free pass to the movies. The introduction of quality paperbacks in the early ’50s enabled us to assemble personal libraries on the cheap. And when word got round that a new short story by J.D. Salinger or John Cheever was in the current New Yorker, the magazine sold out on campus. I wonder, do such things still go on today?

I cannot speak for all my age-mates, but the notion that a college education was preparation for a job was foreign to many of us, and not only those in liberal arts. We looked to what were then called “extracurricular activities” to explore the work we might like to do in later life. So we wrote for campus publications, tested our acting abilities in plays, read the news on campus radio or did whatever else interested us as a way of finding out where our talents lay.

Had there been more women around and fewer rules, our free time might have been otherwise occupied. In our most fevered fantasies we never imagined women jogging though the campus—much less competing with them in the classroom. No matter: Those hours we spent on extracurricular activities turned out to be real apprenticeships for some of us, though we hardly realized it at the time.

A different place
Notre Dame is a different place now. A university in name has become a university in fact, offering the wide range of academic disciplines, learning facilities and experiences—foreign study for undergraduates most readily comes to mind—that one expects of a robust academic institution. Like the hot table at the Huddle, the menu of academic options has grown longer. Choice is now the operative word. But on what basis do students make their choices? The questions we (in the humanities at least) had to ask ourselves—were forced to ask by our mentors on the faculty—about what it means to be human, about what is worth doing with one’s life, about the relation of all such inquiries to the truths of our Catholic faith, are these still central to the learning experience encountered at Notre Dame? I am too distant from the University to venture an informed answer.

This much I can say: For those who wonder what impact Notre Dame is making on the wider intellectual world, there are places they can look. The most exciting work can be found in its independent research centers, such as the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the Erasmus Institute and Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, to mention only the best known. Here we find concrete embodiment of Father Ted Hesburgh’s insight that the University is where the church does its thinking.

If the University is different now, so are its students. There are twice as many of them as there were when I was at Notre Dame. Although the vast majority are still Catholics, few have the early incubation in Catholic faith and practice that the ’50s generation brought to their experience of Notre Dame. Where we were ready to question the answers given us in childhood, professors have told me over the years, most students now resemble catechumens learning the fundamentals to the faith. Fortunately, they have better theologians to guide them on the path.

Other than that, I cannot compare today’s students with my own generation. But I do recognize that students now inhabit a more distracting and diffuse campus culture. Theirs is a plugged-in world of iPods, cell phones, BlackBerries, laptops and the Internet—technologies which produce the illusion that whatever is known or worth knowing is just a few mouse-clicks or keystrokes away. Professors now post their course requirements on the Internet; they also tolerate laptops in the classroom. How, I ask myself, do they know which students are taking notes, which checking their emails or surfing the web? There are no boundaries in the wired world, no buffer against the de-centering habits that these otherwise useful technologies induce. My treasured recall of what professors said, and when and how they said it, betrays a bias: I still think real education is a collaborative engagement between student and teacher, reader and book.

And yet, despite changes in its cultural surround, Notre Dame is blessed with living presences that still connect us all. One of them can be found 13 floors up in the library that bears his name. Notre Dame today is just two presidents away from the long tenure of Father Ted Hesburgh, now 90 years of age, who greeted us as freshmen, handed us our degrees, welcomed us to many reunions since and still holds court for anyone who cares to look him up. Some of us often do. The University we know is in many ways the house that Hesburgh built, its present stature the vendage of his vision. Happy birthday Father Ted, and God bless.

The other enduring presence is Catholicism. Alumni argue endlessly about whether the Notre Dame is losing its Catholic identity, an argument I first wrote about in Newsweek when the issue erupted 40 years ago. It is, I suggest, a question that can be asked only of and by a university that understands itself as Catholic. To say more would be to violate that measured distance I have vowed to keep. But I notice that when a president of the United States, or someone who hopes to be one, wants to address the Catholic Church they usually come to Notre Dame. They do so, I believe, because Notre Dame has become the symbolic center of American Catholicism. For a university, that is not a burden easily shouldered—or lightly shed.

Indeed, for Notre Dame to lose its Catholic identity, every residence hall would have to lock its chapel. The mosaic of Christ on the library would have to be marbled over. The dome would have to lose its Lady, the basilica turned into a tourist relic, like Tintern Abbey. Notre Dame will remain a Catholic university so long as knees are bent and grateful worship offered—so long, that is, as His blood is on these bricks.

Ken Woodward is a contributing editor to Newsweek magazine.