They came from Spring Lake, New Jersey; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Warren, Ohio. From Havertown, Pa., and Framingham, Mass. From Chicago, Santa Barbara and Hannibal, Missouri. There were 18 in all that year — 1972, the fall that Notre Dame welcomed female undergraduates to campus for the first time. The sudden decision to go coed triggered a scramble for housing; not enough beds to go around.
So, the basement of Farley Hall, still a men’s residence hall and one featuring a kind of cellar herbarium, was hastily converted to harbor the 18 freshmen plunked into two five-man rooms and two four-man rooms. The underground accommodations included one brand new bathroom. The freshmen were greeted with the smell of fresh paint and new carpet and by their RA, a third-year law student and quintessential Brooklynite named Tony Ponzio ’73J.D., who, according to one, “added greatly to our merriment and lore.”
“Several of our rooms were garden level,” recalls Mike Welch ’76, “so the windows looked onto the sidewalk traffic and feet going by outside. There was a linebacker on the football team who would walk by on his way to the dining hall, kick on our window screens and yell, ‘Hey, mole men, what are you doing in there?’ And that’s how we became the Farley Molemen.”
They were Gilzo, Midi, Hands, Hoots, Kownacki and Sahn, aka Paco, aka Jimmy Wilson. Tim Zelko became Zeke. Paul Starkey became Starkley Go Naked. And there were Big Luther, Curtimus Lee and Chip, who ended up being Boy Wonder. Paul Koprowski became Crash by running — wearing only his “tighty whities” — through a door, blasting the blitz-proof lock right out of the door frame. Eighteen freshmen isolated from the rest of the hall, left to their own youthful exuberances. The plumpish Ponzio in his quilted pajama bottoms (no top), staring quizzically at the nightly mayhem, telling them to quiet down but otherwise assisting in party planning.
There were sailboat races at the library reflecting pool with those little plastic ice-cream-sundae boats from the dining hall. Grilling hamburgers and cheese sandwiches at night in the ground-level window wells. Going through the “dog book,” looking for female classmates to invite to the big dinner they put on in the Farley basement, complete with decorations, tablecloths and candles, and food mostly of their own making. Only a couple of guests showed up. Maybe one. They can’t remember.
Better recalled were late-night card games of Hearts and Spades, food-sales pizza, human pyramids at pep rallies in Stepan Center and their celebrated interhall athletic exploits that included a trip to the hall final in football. Everyone, even those who remained on the sidelines, got a blue football jersey with “Molemen” on the front and their names and class year — ’76 — on the back.
The Molemen gathered again on a football Saturday, September 10, 2022, 50 years after their arrival in Farley’s basement, at a house south of campus on St. Vincent Street. There was a yard full of memories and stories well told.
Before their first year was complete, though, the University announced women would be moving into Farley the following year, and there was no single residence hall to take in all the Molemen — despite the attrition. Four Moles flunked out, two went abroad and Francis Patrick O’Connor, from an Oklahoma City suburb, was shot and killed the summer after that freshman year. The Molemen would be dispersed. Of the remaining Moles, two-thirds were sent to Pangborn and the rest to Fisher.
But the bonds forged that first year persisted. There was Bookstore Basketball and a trip to the Sugar Bowl for the 1973 national championship win over Alabama. They were there for the 1974 basketball game that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. Gil Johnson became a Senior Bar manager which, according to Mike Welch, gave fellow Moles “access to its aromas and products almost at will,” and enabled them “to spend many more hours together, both during work and after hours generally” — including a visit with Senior Class Fellow Rocky Bleier ’68 at the bar one memorable night. As a fifth-year architecture student, Moleman Rich “Hoots” Johnson ’77 (no relation to the bar manager), succeeded Gilzo at Senior Bar the following year.
But it wasn’t all frivolity. There were late nights studying together, a dorm chat with Father Hesburgh who stopped by to check out the basement remodel, thoughtful walks around the lakes. They looked out for each other and shared the trials of friend and family relationships. “What made us different as Domers,” Rich Johnson explains, “was a recognition that there was something out there bigger than any one game or a good grade in a tough course or that great first job. And our challenge was to go find it.”
After graduating, they became doctors and lawyers, CPAs and bankers. Geography and jobs, marriages and children and life’s tides pushed them apart — until the next wedding, reunion or football game brought them together again, picking up right where they had left off. There were sporadic attempts at a Mole Report, semiregular dispatches providing Moledom news, memories and smack talk via a chain letter communique greatly enhanced by the invention of email and the internet. A few other members — Britty, Goods, Kel and Jake — were adopted into the Molehood despite not being part of the original basement clan.
A turning point came in 2017 when Jimmy Wilson, one of the fraternity’s leaders and a longtime hospital administrator in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was diagnosed with colon cancer. “Jimmy,” recalls Paul “Crash” Koprowski, “was one of the nicest, kindest, most generous, most easy going guys I have ever met. Nobody ever had a bad word to say about him.” The two former roommates had shared a rare round of golf over the years and an occasional tailgater.
“When I learned of Jimmy’s illness, I made it a point to call him on a regular basis,” Koprowski recalls. “We chatted at length. Jimmy discussed his illness with me in a very clinical way with unwavering optimism. By the latter part of 2018, Jimmy’s prognosis had turned bleak.” So Crash, living in Florida, and Tom “Hands” Monaghan, living in Massachusetts, went to Grand Rapids in early November to visit Wilson in the hospital.
“We weren’t sure Jimmy would make it out,” Koprowski recalls. “Tom and I took turns taking Jimmy for very slow walks up and down the hospital hallway — all hooked up to his IV bags and drains with his scrawny ass hanging out of the hospital gown.”
Wilson did make it home to enjoy the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and a few more months with his family. He died in April 2019. “It was a rugged reminder,” says Koprowski, “of the fragility, shortness and sometimes cruelty of life. But it was also a reminder how powerful the strength of family and friends can be.”
The geographically scattered Molemen, who had all done their best to comfort their brother in his struggle with cancer, showed up for the funeral. They stood together by the casket and sang the alma mater. The love was palpable, apparent to the hundreds of mourners in attendance. Their affection has been further expressed in their support of the Children’s Healing Center in Grand Rapids, a response to one of Wilson’s last requests. The Moles have brought Wilson’s widow, Randi, into the fold, sending her cards on holidays, texts at random times and flowers on Jim’s birthday.
“My father would often tell me,” says Rich Johnson, “that he could determine whether or not he did a good job raising me when he had the opportunity to meet my friends from Notre Dame. ‘Your choices of friends in your college years are the first decisions you really make on your own,’ he often said, ‘and the quality of your friends is reflective of your upbringing. Meeting your Notre Dame friends made me extremely proud of the job your mother and I did.’”
The Molemen gathered again on a football Saturday, September 10, 2022, 50 years after their arrival in Farley’s basement, at a house south of campus on St. Vincent Street. There was a yard full of memories and stories well told, laughter, good cheer and lives traveled down divergent pathways held together by the seminal bonds of basement living. And there was gift-giving. Senior Bar shirts were passed out, and more Moleman sweatshirts, a photo book and Notre Dame paperweights, and prints of Rich Johnson’s artwork — evocative renderings capturing the feel of various campus landmarks.
Jim Wilson’s brother Spike ’72, one of two honorary Molemen, was there, as were Randi and son Ryan. And a fine bottle of Macallan 18-year-old Scotch whisky for a prayerful toast to Jimmy, his family and to each other.
“Our September weekend together,” Monaghan explains, “brought this story full circle for me. Fifty years of friendship doesn’t happen by chance. It may start as an accident of circumstance, but only a common spirit holds it together.”
Kerry Temple, editor of this magazine, was made an honorary Moleman, undoubtedly his greatest achievement as a Notre Dame student.