The Reluctant Domer

Author: Peter Graham ’84


The summer of 1980 I schlepped my belongings into Sorin College. An old black trunk, clothes in garbage bags, a new foam chair that folded out into a worthless bed. Most of the other Sorin freshmen had both moms and dads helping them, but my parents divorced five years before, so Dad alone helped with the lugging.

My dad, Tony, had also lived in Sorin — class of 1959 — and in between trips to the car he wandered the halls like a phantom, dipping in and out of rooms. His mouth hung open and he stared down hallways, not quite sure he really lived here once, not quite certain he wanted to return.

I felt anxious. It was the heat of August, and I had to get busy getting people to like me. So many people stress the excitement of freshman year yet forget about the fear. The scary new grab for status. Like my peers, I played nice with the nice, although maybe I should’ve been more like Evelyn Waugh, who advised college students to be careful of the friends they made their first year — otherwise they’d spend the next three years trying to get rid of them.

But the men of Sorin weren’t mean. They were aggressively kind. Outgoing, clean-cut, handsome, their teeth were as white as snow. The entire dorm — and campus — struck me as a hive of winners. Catholicism’s best and brightest. Yet underneath it all operated an unconscious aggression. Booming voices. Crunching handshakes. Everybody battling for a sweet new place in the pecking order.

I wondered where I would fall. I felt enormous urgency to make sense of my new world — especially since my old world had crumbled around me. The pillar making the biggest crash was my faith. Never an avid churchgoer, I stopped going to Mass altogether at Notre Dame.

My retreat from faith was emotional at the start, not intellectual. I’d begun questioning the Catholic way ever since my parents divorced. The Church professed to still accept them, but my mom and dad felt shunned. Mass on the North Shore was an embarrassing affair. Our pastor encouraged my mom and dad to attend — and once berated me for their absence — yet, divorced, they felt they couldn’t take communion. So my mom and dad fell away, and I fell with them.


This past summer I had no idea what I’d find at my 25th reunion. I just hoped to meet up with old friends, wake up some laughter. I wanted to spend time with my dad, too. He was flying in for his 50th reunion, although at first he wasn’t sure he’d attend.

“The people you want to see are never there,” he said.

Dad wouldn’t arrive till Thursday night, so I got to campus first. Perfect June weather. Sunny and in the 70s, and everybody’s smiling at reunion headquarters. Student greeters open doors for alumni as if we’re royalty, and, despite feeling self-conscious about this, I’m in a good mood as I set off to explore the campus.

Dozens of new buildings had sprouted in the old fields between the cemetery and stadium, but alumni come to see the old, not the new. They want to relive, not discover. Instinctively, almost doglike, I sniff the perimeter of my old turf — O’Shaughnessy Hall, Sorin College, the Huddle. The air smells of cut grass and burger grease, and nearby the bells of Sacred Heart chime from the tower.

Soon I catch sight of the Main Building and its tremendous Golden Dome. It shimmers in the sun like the great beacon of Catholicism it is. I admire its grand statement, its magnificent branding. A symbol of faith and football, the Dome also speaks to Notre Dame’s worldly success — something I so much coveted as a boy.

I keep sniffing north, past the old Field House and library. Stepan Center mushrooms in the distance. I’ve heard the geodesic structure will be razed soon, so I go to pay my last respects. Once I grooved to a trombone solo here at Jazz Fest, and outside, as a senior, my team lit up the hoops court on our way to Bookstore Basketball’s Final 8.

So strange to be back. An ex-jock, an ex-Catholic. I feel like a sentence erased on a chalkboard, but still legible, still carrying meaning. It’s like going back to the town of my childhood. The streets are the same but so many of the shops and families have gone missing. I’ve gone missing, too.

The road to Saint Mary’s

At the lakes, I pause to admire the huffing joggers and weeping willows — but the road to Saint Mary’s stops me cold. One fall day in 1980, I rumbled down here with 500 other freshmen louts. The Panty Raid — so raucous and animal. Saint Mary’s girls launched from their windows all kinds of undies — hot red and silk and see-through.

The entire thing struck me as anti-romantic. I pined for safe, smiling girls, like former babysitters, who’d encourage me at every turn but always keep euchre games fun. I didn’t find any. Not as a freshman. Notre Dame had gone co-ed only eight years before, and less than a fifth of the campus echoed with women’s voices. Even with Saint Mary’s, the ratio was about four guys to every one gal.

Still, I had my chances — at Screw-Your-Roommate dances and late-night bacchanals at Corby’s — but nothing serious ever developed. I graduated as pure as the Virgin topping the Golden Dome. Not the coolest thing to admit back then. Definitely not something I broadcast to my friends. Fact is, I was deeply conflicted about sex and women. The Church, of course, condemned hanky-panky before marriage. Sex was a specter that could only be sanctified in wedlock. Many Catholics winked at this, then followed their urges. But I couldn’t. Women scared me. Their beauty made me tongue-tied and stupid. Plus they trumped men in their emotional knowledge. And I, the young oaf, always stumbled to catch up.

I remember running up the walls of the engineering building at 3 o’clock in the morning. That’s where I often found myself after closing down the bars. Timing my steps to the punk beat of the Violent Femmes, I took wild leaps — up, up and away! — off the scratchy bricks.

“Why can’t I get just one kiss?/ Why can’t I get just one kiss?/ Believe me, some things I wouldn’t miss, /but I look at your pants and I need a kiss.”

I kept on running and leaping and crashing on the concrete. Those were the years I couldn’t stop climbing the walls.

Family history

My dad arrives and we have a lovely dinner at Sunny Italy. Nothing’s changed. Candles and checkered tablecloths. Aromas of grilled steak and sweet marinara sauce.

Over a bottle of Chianti, we talk about my dad’s dad, also a ND grad, class of 1928. Robert Graham loved Notre Dame. In fact, Notre Dame saved him. As a boy growing up in Grand Rapids, my grandfather lived in poverty. His dad went crazy from syphilis, so Robert had no prospects, no money and little clout. But he was smart, and he had drive.

Grandfather’s parish priest called down to ND and said he had a really bright kid up in Michigan who’d be great for Notre Dame. The admissions officer, also a priest, told the pastor to send my grandfather down. They’d find work for him. And they did — several jobs — which paid his tuition. Afterward my grandfather became an accountant at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and then one of the best tax lawyers in the country. He died a wealthy man, leaving a good chunk of his estate to the ND Law School.

Thanks to my grandfather, my dad and I enjoy the privileges we have today. So at the end of our meal my dad proposed a toast: “To Robert and 85 years of Grahams at Notre Dame,” he said.

And we drank.

Favorite classes

Next morning Dad and I hit the new bookstore, where we spy a pair of silver-haired Domers, waking up the echoes. They creak along in blue-and-gold regalia. ND caps. ND cufflinks. ND slacks with ND boxer shorts beneath, no doubt. Side-stepping these confederates, we head straight for the books. This is something Dad and I both love about our alma mater: its worship of the word, its shameless culture of intellectualism, its grand tradition of great books and storied teachers.

I had a world of great teachers at Notre Dame. Like the legendary Robert Kerby, a big and bearded priest, who stood in front of the class like Moses and handed down amazing stories on the Civil War. Professor Robert Vacca in classics got me dreaming about Solon and Plato and the rash Alcibiades, 2,500 years old now and still too pretty for his own good. In the American Novel, Joseph Brennan had me read Light in August and My Antonia, Studs Lonigan and the wonderful Winesburg, Ohio.

And what about John Roos’ class in American Government? After his last lecture, a hundred or more students jumped up and gave Roos a standing ovation.

‘Tastes great!’

At lunch in South Dining Hall, the food is better than I remember. Fresh, warm turkey breast. Four kinds of pasta. Gorgeous salad bar. What a difference a quarter-century makes. Back in the day, food was so bad that students left whole plates of it untouched. I’ll never forget my friend Michael Skelly who, for weeks, responded to the waste by loping up and down the dining hall, scrutinizing plates for leftovers.

“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” I said one day.

“Yeah, man, but look.” Gooey trays rattled by on the conveyor belt, heaped with entrails of sausage and corn bread. “It’s all just shoveled into dumpsters.”

Skels plucked a piece of corn bread, took a nibble.

“Nothing wrong with it. Tastes great!”

He was enjoying himself. One of his mottos that year was “Do the good thing.” Which meant doing the right thing, the ethical thing. But good didn’t feel nearly as good if you didn’t have fun doing it.

Charismatic Michael Skelly. Later he started a wind-power company and then ran for Congress and almost won. He hadn’t come back for the reunion, but his spirit permeated the place. He and I and a small clan of activists carved out a counterculture at ND. Senior year we launched a campus protest against apartheid and another against the U.S. invasion of Grenada. We had a lot of fun but pissed off a lot of other students. In response, ND’s silent majority held a rally of its own. Gleefully, The Wall Street Journal reported:

“After a student sit-down strike, students at the University of Notre Dame have won their demand: an unimpeded supply of Cap’n Crunch, their favorite breakfast cereal.”

Divorced Catholics

Dad and I exit the dining hall and head for class. Dozens of seminars are being offered at the the reunion but there’s only one I definitely want to attend: “The Divorced Catholic: What Are the Options?”

Despite being happily married, I want to revisit the event that drove a wedge in my faith — the divorce of my parents. My dad’s not so certain he wants to go back here, but he gamely joins me for the seminar.

We decamp in 116 DeBartolo Hall. I count about 20 in the room, and it’s a tough crowd. Nobody’s talking, and most attendees look angry or embarrassed. A remarried ND prof and a priest who is also a divorced man preside. Both men, pushing 70, have soft, kind faces.

We start by going around the room, giving our names and marital status. Divorced. Divorced. Divorced and remarried. Divorced with marriage annulled. Dad has been divorced twice, but never bothered with annulments. Now he’s married again, yet just says “divorced” when it’s his turn.

One man clears his throat. “I’m divorced and remarried to a non-Catholic,” he announces, “which means that I’m ex-communicated.” His last word slaps through the room like a ruler hitting a desk.

The priest soothes the crowd. He tells the long story of his own marriage and divorce, then his annulment and ascent to the priesthood. He says the Church today should be doing everything in its power to bring people back to it.

“It’s ridiculous to push out Catholics.”

This surprises me. Thirty-five years ago, the Church ostracized Catholics who divorced. The rich or well-connected could finagle a divorce but only if they wheedled an annulment — the Church’s decree that a marriage never took place. Now, according to the priest, divorce and annulment were common for Catholics.

In fact, 80 to 90 percent of annulment requests that the priest knew about were approved. Sure, divorced couples had to confess their sin, and often it took a year or more to dissolve a marriage, but if you made a good case for annulment, it would often go through — whether you had any money or not.

“What about the other 10 to 20 percent, Father?” It’s a big man in front of me. For 20 minutes he’s been muttering.

“When the case for annulment isn’t there,” he answers, “there is something called ‘internal forum.’” The good-conscience solution. A last resort for Catholics seeking annulment. An individual meets with a special priest and declares his or her clear conscience about the divorce. Then the person can return to the sacraments.

“I’ve never heard about this till today,” somebody says. Almost everybody else agrees.

“Yes, well, the Church doesn’t exactly advertise it,” he replies. “And most priests don’t offer it.”

Only a few minutes remain in the seminar, and a sense of frustration oozes through the room. Now the audience demands to be heard.

One woman takes issue with the Church’s central premise on annulment — that her marriage never took place. She refuses to accept this statement. She and her husband had a loving marriage once, but then it fell apart.

“And if the marriage never existed,” the woman adds, “does that mean my children are illegitimate?”

“No,” the priest says quickly, “you did have a legal marriage — so your children are legitimate — but an annulment stipulates that the sacrament of marriage didn’t exist.”

“Oh, jeez,” mutters the big man in front of me, “that’s splitting hairs, Father!”

Laughter erupts, and things threaten to get out of hand, but then the professor, so quiet till now, says time is up.

Good people

Friday night. Dinner in a great white tent behind the Morris Inn. Father Hesburgh, still kicking at 92, addresses our class. I don’t recall what he says, but remember dozens of people gazing up at him in awe. Everybody bows their heads and prays with him. I admire Father Hesburgh’s many accomplishments, but I don’t share the same religious sentiment.

Like the cartoonist Robert Crumb, I suspect God exists but refuse to believe any one faith has a lock on the blessings. So I feel distant from my classmates, who break into the Hail Mary. I feel a thousand clouds away.

And yet, look at all these good and accomplished people. Class of ’84 organizer Mark Rolfes, such a nice guy. Lou Nanni, super nice. Mike Good and David Gaus, not only nice, but one guy fixes the Hubble Telescope and the other builds a hospital in South America for the poor. Suddenly I feel cynical and mean. Even guilty. I want to flee the tent and search out my dad and, after polishing off the last licks of my wine, I do just that.

My father’s had a fine experience at his class dinner. He’s enjoyed catching up with old classmates. And although he’s glad he came back to campus again, he understands my ambivalence about Notre Dame. He shares it.

“We’re just two fallen-away Domers, who still find a lot to admire about the place.”

Spiritual happiness

Next morning I attend my favorite event of the reunion, the film Enlighten Up! It’s about a young man from New York who travels the world, sampling different kinds of yoga. The young man is skeptical of finding spiritual happiness from yoga, but keeps trying. Most of his teachers don’t do anything for the man, though one guru in India connects with him in a small way.

What strikes me about this teacher, sitting on a dais in India with long hair and saffron robes, is how his followers offer him the same reverence my classmates gave Father Hesburgh the night before. The guru says to the young man: “If you want to believe in God, believe; if you don’t want to believe in God, don’t believe. Be yourself, and you’ll be happy.”

When the lights come on, the film’s producer — a big, smiling man — also a class of 1984 grad — takes questions. Does he practice yoga? Yes. Is he still a Catholic? Yes. Isn’t there a fundamental conflict between Catholic and Hindu doctrine? Yes. For Catholics, man is and always will be a sinner. For Hindus, man can achieve perfectibility — although usually over many lifetimes. When asked how he reconciles this difference between Original Sin and the idea of man’s perfectibility, the producer smiles and says, “I haven’t yet.”


After the film, I toss a Frisbee with my good friend, Jim Wolfe. Joining us is Charlie Francis, Jim’s old roommate from Keenan. It’s a sunny day, and we streak across the lawn like greyhounds, snatching Frisbees from the air and laughing.

I feel wonderful. It’s like my last semester senior year when the weather turned warm, and my friends and I ran around South Quad listening to “Back on the Chain Gang.” I remember taking Jim and Skels and all my other rebel friends aside and quoting The Brothers Karamazov. “Let us remember when we were all here together,” I said, “united by this good and decent feeling.” And Skels said, “Yeah, man.” And Jim said “Absolutely.” And we took off our shirts and cranked up the music and hurled the disc into the sun-soaked air.

And every time we ran to make a spectacular catch, one of us would yell out, “Do that good thing!” And everybody else would cheer.

Peter Graham is an associate professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He teaches creative writing and film studies.

Photo of Tony and Peter Graham by Matt Cashore.