A Notre Dame giant passed away recently. I stopped by my old ND stomping grounds for a day on my way to visit my Chicago daughter and wandered slowly to the library, casually pressed the button for the seventh floor, entered the Medieval Institute as I do every time I visit just to bring back some old memories and inquired about the status of my former boss. We had not received our usual Christmas card this year, and I was a little afraid about asking. Inside, I think I already knew. His name was Astrik L. Gabriel —priest, Ph.D., world-renowned scholar, director of the Medieval Institute while I was an undergrad in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and, most of all, my boss while I fulfilled my work-study grant during my four years at ND.
When I first set foot on the campus as an undergrad (my father and a whole host of his brothers had all gone there on athletic scholarships, so I had visited before) I was assigned to work in the field house as a clean-up and towel boy for the kids who were part of the basketball program. I also had signed up for ROTC and was worried that I would not have time for the job and the Army and the regular classes, so I had dropped the job.
I hated ROTC. Hated it. I had more demerits in the first month than the rest of the platoon put together. I couldn’t stand all the orders and the demands. You had to salute everyone with an eagle on his cap—EVERYONE. I would see an officer coming across the quad and hide behind a bush until he went by. Then I would go to drill on the green field on Wednesdays and the CO would say: “Crowe! I saw you behind that evergreen—five demerits!” When they handed out the uniform they gave you the brass to put on it with instructions to remove the lacquer covering the brass and then to polished the insignia. Why? It was shiny already with the lacquer on it. “Crowe! You didn’t scrape off the lacquer— five demerits!” I went to drill once with my back pocket unbuttoned. “Crowe! You have a button unbuttoned! Do you know what I do to people who don’t button their button? I take scissors and cut off all their buttons—five demerits!” “Crowe! When is the last time you shaved?” “CROWE!!!” Well, you get the picture. Fortunately I had an allergy to wool and with a doctor’s excuse escaped ROTC. Thank God I hadn’t been in the Air Force, since their uniforms were cotton.
Without the ROTC I now had time for a job and a great need for spending money (remember those Gilbert’s sales and the one-third/one-third/one-third payment plans) so I found my way to the employment office. They sent me to the library, seventh floor, and Canon Gabriel.
At first I wondered just what I had gotten myself into. Here was this short, stocky, gray-haired, round-faced man dressed in black with a loud voice and a commanding presence who set me to work immediately on his latest project. As I recall there was no training period, no welcoming explanation of the purpose of the institute, and very few introductions, just a quick escort through the rooms to a rather barren, roomy locale with a table by the window and a manual typewriter atop it. I didn’t realize it then, but I was being thrust into the midst of one of Dr. Gabriel’s most ambitious undertakings. That had come into being through an encounter that Father Hesburgh had had with the pope a short time earlier when the discussion had gotten around to photocopying and microfilming all of the books in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan and sending those to Notre Dame to be housed in the Institute. And I was the lucky person who was going to get to catalog all of those arrivals.
I can tell you for certain that this was Dr. Gabriel’s most ambitious project. He was prouder of this than almost anything else and would constantly bring friends and colleagues through to look at what had arrived and talk about what was yet to come. As for me, the microfilm would arrive in small yellow boxes about 4 inches by 4 inches by 1 inch, and it was my job to read the shipping descriptions of what was contained in this delivery and type the labels to match that description and then affix those labels to the boxes and place them carefully in the drawer of the proper cabinet that had been designated to hold that particular treasure. As an 18-year-old kid who had done battle with the typewriter in losing fashion all through high school, more labels were filed in the waste can than went on those boxes. “Crowe! I see that misspelling—five demerits!!” And they kept coming!! I was soon seeing little yellow boxes in my sleep.
I didn’t understand the enormity or the importance of the collection at first, but as I watched him throughout that year beam with pride every time something new was added and as he’d take me by the arm occasionally and drag me to the picture files to show me some of the copies of things that had recently been compiled, I could tell this was a lifelong dream come true for him. Though that first year was a lot of work for me—I sat in the empty room with that table and typewriter day after day after day working on those labels—when he would now and then introduce me to one of his visitors as the trusty worker who was responsible for cataloging all that had arrived, I could feel a kinship begin.
That year was the hardest of the four that I worked for him, but it set us both on a path that became more and more familiar as the years passed. By sophomore year I was trustworthy enough to run errands for him and deliver things right to his apartment in the Main Building. He would give me the key, and I would pick up his orange juice or his meager groceries and put them away carefully in his room and return the key. Once the collection was complete, he seemed to relax. He took us all out to dinner on occasion and talked about all sorts of experiences that he had had in his lifetime—always with an eye to teaching us a lesson of some sort or making us see that the true sense of living was learning, always learning. I watched him one night at the restaurant help a waiter who was struggling with pouring the wine he had ordered by showing him how to do it without spilling a drop. And he did it not as a lecture or a harangue but to help the gentleman learn a better way to do his job.
We parted when I graduated as so much more than employer/employee. He had become a friend. He had met and welcomed my fiance into his office and had drinks with us (one of his favorites—Compari —which I loved but Kathy didn’t) and had charmed her with the wit and wisdom that he was famous for. And when we sent him a Christmas card that first holiday after we were married and working in upstate New York, I was not surprised that we got one in return and received one every year after that until this.
On one of our trips with our two young daughters back to visit the University we happened to find him in his office. He greeted us with open arms and was pleased to see the children. He rooted through his shelves and cabinets looking for something that might appeal to young girls and found a couple of small toys that they could have. I remember clearly that he walked us all at one point over to one of the windows on the seventh floor that faced the Main Building. The sun was just going down, and the sky was orange and yellow and the dome was gleaming. (“Crowe! You’re making up things for effect—five demerits!” But I’m really not. That’s just the way I still recall it.) He had us all looking out the window, and he turned to the two kids and said: “And maybe you can work up here, too, when you come to Notre Dame.” It was one of life’s poignant moments, and I will never forget the finality of that statement. He just expected that they would, just like everyone would want to.My younger daughter did end up at ND for graduate school, and I couldn’t help but remember that moment with Dr. Gabriel when we brought her out there before classes began. I’ve been back to that window many times since.
But the moment I recall the most, the moment I talk about all the time with those who will listen, was the moment when he introduced us to the Da Vinci works. He gathered us together in the Institute one day and brought out a huge volume that he opened on one of the large tables before us. It was the sketchings and backward writing of Leonardo, and he even took out a mirror and showed us how to see it correctly. I have no clear memory of exactly when that was. All I knew at that moment was that this showed the trust and respect he had for all of us there that day—and the sense of the teacher in him that did not lay that work out to impress but to educate, not to show off but simply to show, to give us something to talk about for the rest of our lives. (And send me running for the bathroom mirror in my house that moment in The Da Vinci Code when the writing appears backward.)
I was saddened when I returned to the Institute in July of this year and was informed that he had passed six weeks earlier at the age of 97. Still active, they said; in fact, he had been talking to his assistant who was putting him to bed almost up until the moment that he died. I will miss that yearly Christmas card in the handwriting so barely decipherable that it would take until mid-January to translate everything that he had written. I will miss him at ND, not being able to think about the place and him at the same time.
Most of all, I will miss him. Not because he was the boss I initially feared and then gradually got to know and like. Not because he was probably the most important man I will ever meet (the placement office was so impressed by the fact that he had written me a letter of recommendation). But because of that moment at dinner when he took time to show that waiter how to make his job easier, better, more perfect. I knew at that moment that he was a great man. I knew at that moment that he understood what life was all about. I knew at that moment that helping people was the very best thing any of us could ever do. And I know at this moment that that is why I have been teaching for 34-four years.
Thank you, Dr. Gabriel. I will never forget you.