The Heart of the Matter

Author: Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A.

Students On Steps

Editor’s Note: On a peaceful Saturday morning in early September I sat in my backyard, savoring the scene before me: the grass and trees and black-eyed Susans, all feeling different now — as the sunlight and scents took on an autumn mood. It reminded me of a memorable essay from years back, and that got me to conjuring a list of all-time personal favorites published in the magazine over the years. I decided to share them with you, a new one each Saturday morning until the calendar reaches 2024. Barry Lopez was one of Notre Dame's most important alumni, an author, naturalist and philosopher whose honors included a National Book Award. His subject matter was the very earth itself and its many inhabitants. In this 1979 piece, he turns his attention to Notre Dame. —Kerry Temple ’74

I am sitting in a quiet hotel room in Chicago, 12 floors up, off Wacker Drive. The air on the other side of the windowpane is cool and moving briskly. The Hawk, as they say here, is up. I can hear the elevated train making its screeching turn at Lake and Wabash, and across the way see the compartmented life in Marina Towers.

I turn back to my notes of conversations with teachers and students at Notre Dame over the past three days, after a 10-year absence.

I had walked earlier this evening down North Michigan Avenue, and thought, strangely, perhaps because of the wind and the broad avenue, of that scene in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, set out on the edge of Chicago, at the end of an isolated westering boardwalk. Someone stands there staring, with the wind snapping at his suit, at the ocean of space.

This scene, standing hopeful at the edge of new territory, holds one of the oldest promises in American literature. The promise, most often, is of wealth, the potential for material gain; and there is usually the implication of danger. And these twinned sensations lie at the heart, of course, of the sense of moral obligation, the hope that we might step into the American prairie and — my God, look at the richness of the soil — live our lives in a sacred manner.

We haven’t, historically. In the course of empire we killed people and put our own culture to the land; we listened to no voices but our own. Our lack of moral rectitude in the 19th century makes us ashamed today, but as I write these words there lies on the bed behind me a news story about mineral and timber exploitation in the ravaged Amazon basin. The sins of murder, deceit, corruption, aggrandizement and arrogance are unchanged. And American companies are involved. Again. As though history and community and ethics and apology were only things written on pieces of paper.


It is mid-morning. I sit in the office of John Houck, professor of business management at Notre Dame. Houck’s is a relentlessly ethical mind. How entirely proper that he should teach at this small, Catholic undergraduate institution in the woods of northern Indiana, hard by Dreiser’s Chicago, where I find unusual students speaking of the Amazon tragedy as if personally wounded by it. Houck quotes the legendary Frank O’Malley to me to this effect: There is blood in the bricks here, mixed with that yellow Indiana clay. Moral issues are raised. “You learn,” says Fr. Hesburgh to me later, leaning intently across his potatoes as if he had hold of the nub of something, “in your youth how to care.”


I am walking around St. Mary’s Lake with Tom Stritch, attending with the point of my umbrella, gently, to fallen leaves. Stritch headed my undergraduate department, Communication Arts, when I was here (1962-66), and though we are different men we share common passions, mostly over the evolution and defense of ideas. I wonder, as we talk, how often anyone has this chance, to come back, to walk the lakes on a sunny autumn afternoon. What have you been reading? Whatever happened to so-and-so? I saw your name in . . .

In his crowded office, assistant professor of biology Dave Morgan, a man my own age, speaks of a regenerated concern for the environment among his students, though most at Notre Dame couldn’t tell a muskrat from a beaver. As a younger man I would have been just foolish enough to think not knowing this difference precluded a commitment to the moral principle involved. Someone here, possibly from Shaker Heights, could speak sharply, bluntly, eloquently for either the muskrat or the beaver. And know precisely the points to be made.

In the artificial light of his basement library office Ron Weber, professor of American studies (and, as we speak, 24 hours shy of hooking a 22-pound coho salmon in Lake Michigan off the breakwater at New Buffalo) says: “This is a place not where people are more moral than they are elsewhere, but where moral issues are raised.” It’s in the air, he says. And as I cross the campus I muse on men fishing commercially off the Grand Banks, southeast of Newfoundland, in a tangle of international ranklement over quotas. A professor at Notre Dame, taking coho on light tackle after his afternoon classes. Both incidents find their way into Weber’s lectures. “The point,” he remarks, “is not to teach contemporary culture, but to sensitize students to coming to grips with their times.”


I walk away from the lake with Tom Stritch, who remembers his students — community, the sense of community he exudes. And I feel, as we measure out our steps up the hill past the Grotto, that we stand to defend the same things. And I think of John Houck, wrestling with a modern beast in his classes. The insistence on ethical behavior in business is revealed in the lean flexion of the man’s hands, in the bright eyes set in the struggled face. In his new book, Full Value, he asks, “Is it possible to be a Christian and a competitive business leader at the same time?” Yes, oh yes. But there is blood in the bricks. There are easier things. Do you know how easy it is to walk a D9 Cat bulldozer into the Amazon jungles?

And Hesburgh again, leaning in over coffee: “This is an environment where you can learn the place of God without being crushed by the cynicism of youth.”

We look out the windows to the putting green behind the Morris Inn, past our lunch. “How do you get holy in your profession?” he asks.

A student inquires a few hours later in a writing class, “Where are the people you go to, to learn how to live?”

The two questions go to the heart of a Catholic university.

Student At Grotto

I feel comfortable among these teachers charged with making men and women holy in their professions. Says Weber: “The content of a course vanishes, of course; what remains are certain styles of mind you wish to emulate.” And Dave Morgan: “You want more than anything else for them to leave in a state of excitement.” And the self-effacing Stritch: “Teaching is an art, but a very minor one.” There is nothing precious here. A sense of work. Of humor. Of inquiry. (And from a former student of O’Malley: “He cared even when the writing, when the questions we asked, weren’t worth that much.”)

(I go through my notes surprised at how often teachers used two words: passion and moral. As if to acknowledge the deep care for an idea, from which would grow a commitment beyond one’s years at the University and the context for one’s decisions.)

The people to go to, to learn how to live.


The atmosphere seems inappropriate but right: John Dunne, one of the most respected theological minds in the country, and I are sitting over iced tea and sandwiches in the Huddle. I essay this: a great university informs the mind with the metaphors of science (the second law of thermodynamics, the coefficient of friction, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), and of literature, and philosophy and history. And one is literate by virtue of the range and depth of one’s ideas here. Dunne likens this to “an extreme critical lucidity.” And I put forth this: a Catholic university, in addition, encourages the idea that every act has moral implications. Dunne likens this to “an extreme moral conscience.” And then I say it seems to me that literacy and a sense of moral obligation constitute civilization. Dunne smiles, in such a way as to emphasize all we have been saying up to that point about non-Western thought, an area in which we both have an interest, and with which these points I have just made are at odds.

I smile back. How easy to think again purely in Western, Catholic university terms. To be analytic about what lies at the heart. This is why you leave school. Dunne stays on, to point this out to succeeding generations.

Dunne radiates intellectual freedom, lack of dogma, variety of view, contemplative life — what the Hindus call ahimsa, the principle of non-violence — all of which is the university to him. He says, of the way students learn here: “You have all the [moral] doubts, the questions everyone else has, but there are no tabooed subjects here.”

And Hesburgh, walking back across the campus after lunch, turns and says, in response to an anecdote about the depression engendered by teaching uncommitted students at a state school in the Southwest, “Here a student can talk about the soul — that is a legitimate academic question.”


On a Wednesday afternoon in the library, sponsored by the English department, I stand before a podium to read my own work, several pieces of fiction. In the audience before me is Richard Sullivan, in whose fiction writing classes I encountered, 15 years ago, in Weber’s phrase, a style of mind to emulate. The reading is in his honor, and I trust as my words come out in something honest and simple — that the words are well-crafted enough to please him, who took a life of anonymity. Who taught.

As I read I am aware, more than anything else, of a sense of community; and of the obligation of the writer to elucidate. On the shelves of the rooms which rise above the room where I read are the books without which an undergraduate education is emaciated. And these collections, ironically, are not good. Robert Miller, director of libraries, tells me in his office: “This is not a very good library. Our collections are pitiful by any standard.” Miller is newly arrived, to remedy the situation. (I think, as I sit there in his office, of the hours I spent trailing my fingers down the open shelves of the old library, as if trolling for salmon, stopping suddenly to pull down a book. Salmon meat.)


Before I leave him in his office, Fr. Hesburgh hands me a letter from a recent graduate, a woman, whose words confirm his own belief that Notre Dame’s ascendency as an “academic presence” in America is actual, but that its unique mark in higher education will be the graduation of “compassionate, humane, and morally sensitive people.”

The danger of such ideas is that they are self-serving. Notre Dame has, no doubt, produced venal and dogmatic people, soulless exploiters, and bigots of one sort or another. But the University’s claim is not moral rectitude; it merely emphasizes that students here are free to consider the range of human opinion and in the presence of what one hopes are literate and principled teachers to mold one’s intellectual and moral character. In this way, in Hesburgh’s phrase, at a Catholic university you have the opportunity to become holy in your profession.


Down below, the lights of the bridge traffic tremble on the river. I am alone in my hotel room. The story about the destruction of the Amazon basin is still over there on the bed. And I feel like walking out to the edge of the city, and staring into the promise of the prairie. You must learn in your youth, Hesburgh had said, how to care. The point of my umbrella moved a twig out of our path. “It is for the sense of caring. That is why we are here.”

Barry Lopez, who died in 2020, was an internationally acclaimed nature writer whose book Arctic Dreams received the National Book Award.