The Excellently Extraordinary, Iconic Emil T.

Author: Brendan O’Shaughnessy ’93

Emil Hofman photo by Matt Cashore

1. Notre Dame legend Emil T. Hofman

a. Taught more than 60 percent of each freshman class for four decades, counting more than 32,000 graduates as former students, including more than 8,000 doctors.
b. Instructed former president Monk Malloy, both of Notre Dame’s eventual Nobel Prize winners and most of the University’s other prestigious living alumni.
c. Has a signed picture of astronaut Jim Wetherbee ’74 in space with a written note: “This was easier than freshman chemistry.”
d. All of the above.

For nearly four decades, the drawn-out shouts of “Emil” rang across the campus of Notre Dame on Thursday nights.

Freshman students groaned the name of the legendary chemistry professor in communal misery as they flooded the Hesburgh Library while other students went to parties. The frustrated scream spilled from dorm windows as students struggled with their fear of failure and a blue-cover textbook written by the teacher. Those who finished studying for the weekly seven-question quiz on Friday morning yelled it exuberantly across the quads in the wee hours of the morning.

“Emil is evil,” some would shout, seeking a release from quadratic equation tension. Most would change the end of the daily Lord’s Prayer at the start of class to “Deliver us from Emil.” They even called the relentless quizzes “Emils.”

Yet the thousands of former students of Emil T. Hofman ’53M.S., ’63Ph.D., who started his Notre Dame career in 1950, seem to remember him with a fondness that mirrors their affinity toward their alma mater. For many, he embodied the Notre Dame spirit of tough love: a professor who demanded excellence in the classroom and worked just as hard outside of it to make them love the University as he did.

Hofman, now 90, exemplifies that rare combination found in all the great teachers. He was a lion on the stage who commanded a crowded auditorium without a microphone, yet he somehow conveyed a hint of his sly sense of humor and joy in teaching. He was a drill sergeant who exerted total authority over as many as 600 squirming near-adults, and he made it clear that he cared about each individual and wanted above all for each to succeed in his class.

Despite his unquestioned status as one of Notre Dame’s teaching legends, Hofman says his legacy at the University lies elsewhere. He grips a U.S. News & World Report magazine and proudly points to the figures showing that Notre Dame ranks third in the country in student retention, alumni satisfaction and percentage of the alumni donating to the school. The reason he’s proud of that, he says, lies more in the work he did as dean of the Freshman Year of Studies from 1971 to 1990 than as a teacher. That part of his story is not as well known.

For six decades, Hofman has been a fixture on campus. Since retiring, he has inspired prospects to come to Notre Dame via his homemade videos and alumni club visits, and led former students to volunteer their medical expertise in Haiti. He attends Mass each day in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and holds “office hours” in good weather on a bench in front of the Golden Dome. Current students know little about the stooped old gentleman parked next to his walker, but they can’t fail to see the reverence with which alumni approach him.

Eric Wieschaus ’69 remembers all the students being terrified of Hofman. Wieschaus, now a professor at Princeton University, won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work on the way genes in the fruit fly determine the formation of body parts. Still, he was overwhelmed to be invited the next year to give an annual lecture named in honor of his former teacher. That was only his first surprise.

“He was such a figure in my life,” Wieschaus says. “I can almost still hear his big, booming voice. When he asked, I said, ‘Of course. Wow. Me?’ I was honored.”

After the invitation, Hofman decided to look up the grades Wieschaus earned in freshman chemistry. When Hofman saw that a Nobel laureate scored a B in both semesters, he marched into the Registrar’s Office and asked how a professor could retroactively change a student’s grade. Here’s how Hofman recalls the scene:

The office clerk asked, “For what semester would you like to make a grade change?”

“For both semesters . . . of the year 1965,” Hofman said.

“OK,” said the surprised woman. “What do you want to give as the reason?”

“I will accept the Nobel Prize as extra credit earned,” he said.

Then Hofman took the stamped form and presented it to Wieschaus in the introduction to his lecture. When Wieschaus returned to Princeton, he proudly held the form up to show the students in his chemistry lab.

“This, ladies and gentlemen,” Wieschaus pronounced dramatically, “is what it takes to get an A at the University of Notre Dame.”

2. A young Emil Hofman

a. Remembers losing his home three times during the Great Depression.
b. Studied on five different college campuses before settling at Notre Dame, not leaving despite later job offers ranging from Ohio State to Manhattan College.
c. Married the nurse who took care of him in a Louisville hospital after a car accident.
d. All of the above.

Hofman was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1921 to a family thriving in the baking and food business. The good times didn’t last long; his mother died in 1930, and his father lost everything in the Great Depression.

“That had a great effect on me,” he says. “I worked on a horse-drawn milk wagon. I picked up coal dropped on the railroad tracks and collected it in a burlap sack. I formed an attitude that security is the most important value.”

He had enjoyed chemistry enough in high school to build a crude laboratory above his father’s garage, but he found more interest in acting. After graduating from high school in 1940, he entered NBC’s Radio City program for radio actors and announcers. In a rare move for him, he quit after a few months and went to Seton Hall because they offered him a scholarship. He declared chemistry his major mainly because the two men who ordered his father’s most expensive pies — 40 cents each — were both chemists.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor late the next year, Hofman entered the Army Air Force and flew combat missions over Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. His service earned him the air medal and presidential unit citation. Hofman, like many others of his generation, doesn’t want to talk about the war and his battle injury. He immediately switches attention to his younger brother, who was killed in Korea in 1951.

“We were close, even though he was 10 years younger,” Hofman says. “After that, I decided I’d spend my career helping young people find their way. It’s why I started every class with the Lord’s Prayer and a prayer to Mary, Queen of Peace.”

Hofman used the GI bill to study at Catholic University and the University of Miami. He arrived at Notre Dame in 1950 and never left. He hated South Bend at first, but he figured he should get a degree, and the chemistry department chair convinced him to cover a teaching assistant position in the laboratory. He was offered a full-time teaching job after receiving his master’s degree in 1953.

“From the first day on the floor, I fell in love with teaching,” Hofman says.

His colleagues weren’t always as thrilled with him; he was the only one in the department without a doctorate at a time when Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, was trying to ramp up the faculty credentials and research profile. Hofman managed to survive, and finally notched the necessary degree in 1963 with his research in chelating polymers.

Jerry Freeman ’50, another emeritus chemistry professor, inherited the students coming out of Hofman’s classes for the organic chemistry class he taught for 31 years. Freeman had firsthand knowledge that Hofman’s methods worked.

“It was clear that hiring and promotion were tied to research,” Freeman says. “Some people appreciated Emil because he was willing to teach large numbers, and that freed up others for research and graduate students.”

Besides studying and research, fun also was part of his early teaching years. In 1952, he set out on a road trip to New Orleans with three fellow teachers. They were in Louisville late in the night when the driver ran into a tree and rolled the car into a ditch.

“I woke up with a priest giving me the last rites,” Hofman says. “I passed out again and woke up with an angel of mercy leaning over me. She was my nurse then; she’s my wife now.”

Except the progression wasn’t quite that fast. Joan Hofman, 78, says the hospital where she worked had a strict policy against fraternizing with patients. So she took care of him for five weeks and then said goodbye.

Five years later, Hofman was in Louisville for a conference and decided to look her up, figuring she was married by then. She wasn’t, and they went on a date. After six weeks of visiting her, he invited Joan to South Bend and proposed at the Grotto. They were married by Thanksgiving, and Emil finally got his trip to New Orleans for the honeymoon.

3. Chemistry Professor Emil Hofman

a. Was appointed to lead one of Notre Dame’s biggest cultural shifts.
b. Adopted the first dorm of women students and began a lunch tradition of “Emil’s dates” to ease the transition.
c. Was rumored for years to have invented Prell shampoo and to be independently wealthy, teaching for $1 a year out of the goodness of his heart.
d. All of the above.

ND Archives

Teaching thousands of students over two decades, Hofman built up some clout at Notre Dame during its boom of post-war growth. He would need all of that political capital and a complete transformation in style to take on what he counts as one of his two major contributions to the University.

Early in the 1970s Notre Dame had attempted to merge with Saint Mary’s College. A rushed plan and opposition on both sides led to a parting of ways. Hofman calls it a “shotgun marriage that was annulled before it was consummated.”

Father Hesburgh was not deterred. He approached Hofman in the spring of 1971 and asked him to become dean of the Freshman Year of Studies to welcome female students the next year after more than a century of all-male education.

“I told him picking me was a mistake,” Hofman recalls of his first discussion with Hesburgh. “I said, ‘I’m the most chauvinistic guy on campus. I served in the army, I raised three sons and I’ve taught only boys for twenty-some years. I don’t know one thing about teaching girls.’”

“Hesburgh said, ‘You’ll learn.’”

Sitting in his 13th floor library office, the emeritus president explains his choice. “I wanted Emil because he was a tradition here,” Hesburgh says. “He was totally dedicated to Notre Dame and always available to his students. And he was a very strong force. You don’t have to have daughters to be a leader of a university that is introducing women. We’re not talking about Martians. We’re talking about human beings.”

But to many at the slow-moving institution, female students were an alien life form and change came hard. Hofman remembers it as the worst year of his career, floundering in efforts to integrate nearly 150 female freshmen along with 200 female transfer students into a student body of about 6,300 men. He had to fire at least one teacher for inappropriate remarks and had to convince the male students to treat the women with respect.

Julie Silliman ’78, a member of one of the first co-ed classes, remembers the pressure of being the only female in nearly every class and the humiliation of entering the dining hall to tables full of men holding placards rating each woman’s appearance.

“Emil got lots of crying women in his office,” says Silliman, now an engineer married to a Notre Dame professor. “He would take us out to dinner and make us feel important. He went out of his way to show us we were wanted on campus.

“Father Ted decided on co-ed education, but Emil made it happen,” she adds.

Hofman had long adopted the persona of a drill instructor in his classrooms, but he soon realized that wasn’t effective in his new role. His acting as an adviser, he says, finally led to a revelation — he would be proud to have the women as daughters. He consciously developed a new persona as a father figure.

The experience with female students led Emil to become a leader with other groups that bring diversity to the student body. He advocated for access for the disabled before federal laws made it mandatory and developed programs to support minorities. Of the dozens of awards he’s won, the first he points out is a plaque of appreciation from the Black Cultural Arts Council in 1986.

Lena Jefferson ’90 began calling Hofman “Dad” during her sophomore year, after he helped her through a grueling freshman year. An African American raised by her Detroit grandparents, she dreamed of becoming a psychiatrist, motivated by her mother’s mental illness. But she wasn’t prepared for pre-med classes: she withdrew from Hofman’s class and nearly flunked out of school.


Because of her determination, Hofman steered her to psychology and designed a curriculum to help her through, including scholarship money for an extra year to catch up on science courses. He convinced her not to give up when she nearly failed medical school.

“I will not let you down,” Jefferson wrote him in a “Dear Dad” letter of appreciation, “nor will I waste your time, effort, compassion, or money for that matter, if you keep believing in me and being a source of strength for me.”

When licensed psychiatrist Lena Jefferson was married in 2003, Hofman walked her down the aisle.

4. Dean Emil Hofman

a. Created the University’s Learning Resource Center based on his experiences offering 7 a.m. Friday review sessions to students struggling in his chemistry class.
b. Forced through a change requiring professors to give mid-semester grades that motivate students to bear down on their studies.
c. Directed the Notre Dame Teacher Training Institute that granted degrees in chemistry to about 400 adults who went on to teach chemistry in high schools nationwide.
d. All of the above.

As if integration were not enough challenge, Dean Hofman soon undertook a second major transformation at Notre Dame.

Before 1962, students had to declare their major before starting school in one of the four undergraduate colleges. As assistant dean of chemistry, Hofman had met with many students who were dropping the major, telling him they could no longer reach their goal of becoming a doctor. Hofman felt 18-year-olds were too young to know what they wanted, much less to fail on their dreams.

If Notre Dame accepts the best students, he figured they should be treated right. That meant giving them a flexible academic program with time to decide on a major, and helping them to succeed and like the University. He decided in 1973 that the Freshman Year of Studies should be equivalent to a college and have full power over the curriculum.

“It was a real battle, and I have the scars on my back to prove it,” Hofman says. “The dean of engineering and I nearly came to blows. He didn’t think engineers needed philosophy. The chair of the art department was the same way. They thought we needed more specialization, not more generalization.”

Hofman insisted on two priorities in leading the committee to develop a new curriculum, which is still largely unchanged. First, he wanted a program general enough to force students to try new areas but rigorous enough to keep them ready for the sciences or other majors. Second, he wanted to give freshmen time to figure out their major, pointing to research showing that fewer than 20 percent of freshmen really know what they want to do with their life.

“Freshmen need the opportunity to explore before they commit,” Hofman says. “It’s our responsibility to help them figure it out.”

Within five years of Hofman’s changes, fewer than 1 percent of Notre Dame freshmen were dismissed for academic failure, compared to a national attrition rate of 17 percent. Today, about half of all freshmen change their intended major between the start of school and when they commit to one in the spring.

Ray Sepeta ’75Ph.D., a counselor who worked under Hofman for nearly 15 years, says the dean had clear expectations of his team. He never gave up on a kid, Sepeta says, and held the counselors responsible for failures. Sepeta remembers a moment revealing that Hofman lived his beliefs.

Sepeta was advising an impoverished student from the West Coast who was struggling on many fronts at Notre Dame. Hofman joined one conversation and learned that the woman wanted to go home to see her family on break but couldn’t afford it.

“I watched Emil pick up the phone and pull out his own credit card and pay for her ticket home,” Sepeta says. “I’m not sure if she realized how unusual this was. He had a belief that our kids will succeed at any cost.”

5. Freshmen counselor Emil Hofman

a. Has received about 10,000 letters from appreciative students, most of which he later answered with a note about how far they have come.
b. Organized social events as a matchmaker now credited with dozens of ND marriages, including that of his colleague Jerry Freeman’s oldest son.
c. Co-chaired the University calendar committee that ended Saturday morning classes and moved autumn exams to before Christmas break.
d. All of the above.

Preventing students from flunking out is one part of retention; making them enjoy their college experience enough to choose to stay is another. Hofman tackled the social deficiencies of the newly integrated campus with the same zeal as he did a chemical formula.

He started with Freshman Orientation, hiring buses to take vehicle-deprived freshmen on a shopping trip to the mall, where they could get basic room supplies they forgot to bring. He instituted a Friday night cookout and had the Glee Club show up in secret to teach the new Domers traditional ND songs. The program has changed little to this day.

Hofman set up transportation (a double-decker London bus at one point) for date nights — dinner at The Ice House and a movie. He organized a beach trip to the Lake Michigan Dunes, a rafting trip on the Saint Joe River, snow tubing trips to Bendix Woods and Saint Patrick’s County Park and a Chicago trip for those left stranded over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“I went on every trip,” Hofman says. “I usually charged $7 [in honor of his quizzes] and paid for the rest with donations from former students.”

Richard Isleib ‘87, an environmental engineer from New Jersey, was one of those freshmen who couldn’t make it home for Thanksgiving in 1983. He and a roommate decided to see Chicago on a Black Friday trip with his strict chemistry teacher and about 150 freshmen.

After the downtown museums, the last stop was a restaurant in Greektown. Isleib remembers that Hofman taught the students to yell “OPA!” every time waiters brought out dishes and had the owner end with Greek dancing — leading a line dance right onto the buses home.

“Hofman’s energy brought everyone together for bonding, so we would loosen up and get into the spirit,” Isleib says. “You could tell he wanted to initiate the freshmen into the Notre Dame community.”

Ken MacAfee ’78, the All-American football player who is now an oral surgeon in a Boston suburb, knows both the strict and fun sides of Hofman. As a freshman, MacAfee told Hofman he wanted to be a dentist but did not have the math or science background to take chemistry.

MacAfee took the courses Hofman prescribed. The following summer, Hofman handed him a thick chemistry book and a set of equation problems and said, “Read this, do the problems and I’ll enroll you.” Hofman admits he never thought he’d see those huge hands in his office again. When the tight end returned with the work done, Hofman welcomed him to the class.

MacAfee remembered a student whose eyes wandered during a quiz. “He pointed to a kid and yelled, ‘You!’ – it was like God had spoken.” No one even thought of cheating again. Another time, Hofman had to miss a class. His teaching assistants set three TV monitors onstage and Hofman gave his lecture on tape, walking the aisles as usual.

“Balancing football and pre-med classes, I thought of quitting several times, but I just couldn’t do it to Emil,” says MacAfee, who played pro football to earn money for dental school. “Being invited to give the [Emil Hofman] lecture was probably the highlight of my life; it meant more to me than being an All-American.”

6. Professor Emeritus Emil Hofman

a. Held the record for giving the most UND Night talks to Alumni Clubs nationwide until he was overtaken by Father Monk Malloy.
b. Hosted with his wife, Joan, several alumni trip tours to foreign countries.
c. Has traveled to Haiti about a dozen times and recruited dozens of former students to volunteer medical services there.
d. All of the above.


Hofman retired in 1990 with his trademark dramatic style. Local television stations filmed his final exam “parade,” a tradition in which he dressed in costume — as everything from Bruce Springsteen to a football player to James Bond (007) — and marched his exams from his office to the dining hall, where the tests were taken, while former students blared music and cheered. The purpose was to release tension for the freshmen taking the test.

He was given an honorary degree at commencement that year. He had once informed Emeritus Athletic Director Moose Krause that the title meant you worked just as hard but without pay, and Krause now welcomed him to the club. Hofman soon began a new tradition — staking out a bench in front of the Main Building before and after daily Mass at the Basilica.

But slowing down was not on Hofman’s agenda. Dr. William Bell ’57, a former student who took care of six U.S. presidents, started a lecture series in Hofman’s name in 1993, now run by Dr. Mark Walsh ’69, featuring former students who have gone on to distinguished careers. When Father Tom Streit, CSC, was scheduled to speak in 2005, Hofman discovered his next retirement passion.

He visited Haiti to learn more about Streit’s program to combat lymphatic filariasis and was astounded by the levels of poverty he encountered — yet also was inspired by the opportunity. He had been to Chile years before and saw the good work a medical school was doing there. He thought Haiti could benefit from a similar medical program with American volunteers.

He soon organized the first of about a dozen reconnaissance trips, inviting former students who had become doctors to join him. The goal is to give the doctors a chance to see the poverty and the good they can achieve and let them decide whether to return as volunteers. Haiti Program flyers for the trips were soon inviting doctors to become part of “Emil’s Army.”

“Here’s a guy who had several strokes, struggling to get around with his back problems and his walker, but he never complained,” says Dr. Kevin Olehnik ‘78. “He gave the program legitimacy. I knew it would be a good cause, and we could really make a difference.”

Hofman was leading a recon trip to Haiti in January 2010 when an infection attacked his kidney, forcing him to board a plane for home — four days before the country was rocked by a major earthquake. Hofman was devastated to learn that Sister Esta Joseph, C.J., and more than a hundred girls at Saint Rose of Lima parish school were killed. The school had been a regular stop on his tours, and he had become a friend and benefactor over the years.

Olehnik was among the first to join Dr. Ralph Pennino ‘75, another Hofman alum, in responding to the earthquake, flying a chartered plane to the Dominican Republic and making their way to Leogane, near the quake’s epicenter. The team set up a field hospital near the Notre Dame Haiti Program building and began treating the wounded. In the six months after the earthquake, the volunteers performed 700 surgeries, delivered 250 babies and saw more than 25,000 patients in critical need.

Hofman celebrated his 90th birthday during a trip to Haiti in June. He says that as long as he can, he will continue the work that gives such meaning to his life.

“He’s the embodiment of Notre Dame,” Olehnik says. “He’s a tough-love guy who is kind, generous and has a spiritual side.”

7. Emil T. Hofman

a. Received the Thomas P. Madden Award for excellence in teaching freshmen in 1963, the Presidential Service Citation in 1977 and the Father Shilts Award for teaching science in 1987.
b. Won the Professor of the Year award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education in 1985.
c. Has a scholarship fund, lecture series, teaching award and endowed chair named after him.
d. All of the above.

When a renovation of the Main Building was completed in 1999, University officials established a Wall of Honor and selected 20 people to include for “lasting, pervasive and profound” contributions to Notre Dame.

Of those original honorees — which include founder Father Edward Sorin and coach Knute Rockne — just four are still alive, and only Hofman and Hesburgh remain active on campus.

Hofman’s teaching style and prowess are one part of why he is in this select group. In 40 years of teaching, he missed only one class for personal reasons (food poisoning in the early 1960s). Students had assigned seats, and he took roll by walking the aisles and memorizing the empty seat numbers, which he would write down when he strolled by his desk — all without skipping a beat in his lecture. He would occasionally call a strange face to the front and check the student ID, and nail someone who paid a roommate to sit in that seat.

He jokes that he started his 7-question quizzes because he couldn’t go out in South Bend without running into his freshmen, so he wanted one night a week for his own. Really, they were his way of forcing students to keep up with complex concepts rather than cramming for a final exam, and they were based more on application of knowledge than memorization. Despite the unquestioned rigor of his class, the study sessions and help available resulted in fewer than 5 percent of his students failing each year.

Drew Paluf ’80, now the University controller, says he had to study hard every week to succeed, but it’s the kind of fond memory that a military unit has of the time spent bonding in boot camp training. It was a formative experience.

“There was a camaraderie — all of us studying in the library on Thursday nights,” Paluf says. “You could look around and know who was in the club by seeing the blue-papered textbook he wrote. We were all in it together.”

But Hofman’s legacy only starts with his teaching. His story is one of wrestling with the issues that have defined the University’s history in the second half of the 20th century: creating a more diverse student body, finding the proper balance between teaching and research, and expanding into a national university with a high rate of retention, devoted alumni, huge endowment and international reach.

For Emil, the stories that matter are not about him; his still-sharp mind rejuvenates his declining physical posture when he recounts the stories of the students who exemplify the Notre Dame spirit. Several of them are now donors to Hofman’s ongoing activities.

One example is Dr. William Mollihan ’59, who grew up in a West Virginia orphanage. He dreamed of becoming a doctor because one visited the orphanage weekly and let Mollihan carry his medical bag. He didn’t have money for college but managed to get a scholarship to become a nurse anesthetist.

Mollihan clung to his goal and applied to Notre Dame, offering to run the infirmary at nights to make money for tuition. He lived in the infirmary and ran it for two years. Hofman was so impressed by Mollihan’s deliberate work ethic that he took the older student under his wing. He called Loyola University’s medical school in Chicago and threatened to never recommend another student if it didn’t take Mollihan.

Mollihan went on to open a radiology lab company and later started the Emil T. Hofman scholarship endowment in 1973. It is now worth about $1 million and is one of three scholarships in Hofman’s name.

“I don’t know how you put into words what that man meant to me,” says Mollihan. “He was a surrogate everything for me.”

Ultimately, the mystery of Hofman’s popularity — despite being strict and demanding — is unlocked by his role as a surrogate. He exemplifies Notre Dame’s spirit of in loco parentis that sometimes frustrates students but also reminds them of their family. What students need, in his opinion, especially as freshmen, is tough love. For six decades, Emil has been dishing it out with all his mind, heart and soul.

Brendan O’Shaughnessy works in communications for Notre Dame. A former Indianapolis Star journalist, his articles have appeared in this magazine, the Chicago Tribune and The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader.