Editor’s Note: We just devoted an issue to Notre Dame’s relationship with South Bend and what’s happening now in the city. What about back in the day? This 2011 Magazine Classic from Donald Anderson ’69 takes a nostalgic look back at his years growing up at the edge of campus.
Among all Notre Dame alumni I am special. Actually, I am one of three such special alumni. My two older brothers and I are graduates of Notre Dame, but we also grew up in the veritable shadow of the University while it progressed from quiet provincialism to nationally recognized greatness.
From the time I started to crawl (ca. 1948) until my graduation in 1969, I lived in the white, two-story house at 819 East Angela Boulevard. At the time, this was not the closest private residence to the ever-growing University, but now it is. Without moving, it has become the sentinel house at the corner of the main entrance. Regrettably, the house is now out of our family, but fortunately it is still maintained in a condition that is indistinguishable from its appearance some 60 years ago as a product of the post-World War II baby and building resurgence.
In those early years, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, was a young priest just starting to ascend the Holy Cross university ladder and was the recently appointed head of the Religion Department. A generation of returning WW II veterans was living in surplus Army barracks north of the campus while studying under the beneficence of the GI Bill.
Except on football Saturdays, the intersection of Angela and Notre Dame Avenue at that time was a not particularly congested 4-way stop. The people in the house next to us raised and dispatched chickens in their backyard. West of that neighbor was an unkempt, weed field, followed by the brick home of Professor Otto Bird, convert to Catholicism and founder of the Program of Liberal Studies, whose eight children were our regular playmates. Notre Dame was then as always a great teaching institution, although its reputation in research and credentials in the domain of secular scholarship circles may at that time have been less that of Tier I.
So how does an accident of being born to a devout Catholic mother from Kansas City and a Lutheran accountant recently hired by South Bend Lathe Works make my attendance at Notre Dame “special”? Quite simply because of the informal, unregistered, tuition-free, high classic liberal education, both intellectual and moral, I received from Notre Dame years before being accepted as a freshman in 1965.
Naturally, the first attraction to the great institution immediately adjacent to our backyard was its potential as a great playground. Cedar Grove Cemetery was neither spooky nor restricted, and it provided imaginative settings amid the high tomb monuments as well as history lessons in the French heritage of South Bend and its indigenous Potawatomi Indians. We never were chased out of the cemetery by the groundskeepers, and later I occasionally had official business there as an altar server for Saint Joseph’s parish funeral interments.
The great campus expansion of the 1970s and ’80s was built over land that in my childhood was an unfenced buckhorn grass prairie. There we could not only play football or any invented sport needing unrestricted open space but would also hunt ground sparrows, small reptiles and exotic insects. The mere availability of open land without having any purpose other than being a parking lot for five Saturdays in the autumn was a botany and biology laboratory better than most secondary schools could provide. The open fields also were not subjected to light pollution and consequently provided unobstructed views of constellations, meteor showers and, on rare winter nights, fluttering green aurora curtains.
South Bend blizzards often turned that Notre Dame prairie into a nearly impassable white wilderness, reminiscent of what the itinerant Rev. Stephen Theodore Badin must have experienced when he fortuitously purchased that virgin land from the U.S. government around 1830 as a real estate investment.
In the early ’60s, Notre Dame was as open to investigation by an interloping adolescent as it is now receptive to interloping proponents of secularism. I was able to wander through the engineering labs, examine the geology displays, catch turtles in Saint Mary’s Lake and visit chapels within unlocked residence halls. With due respect for a building and grounds staff making close to minimum wage, security was effectively nonexistent. One would think that a kid from town swimming in Saint Joseph’s Lake should quickly be escorted out by the campus cops, but when you swam with the Moreau Seminary priests who were at the same time subtly recruiting a potential vocation, you were exempt.
Once a professor of geology spotted me curiously absorbed in the department’s mineral display and struck up a conversation. He not only introduced me to that science but invited me to join their summer field trip when I reached an appropriate age. Again, that walk-on interest in the person constitutes the time-honored essential technique of evangelization. I was now not only informally welcome to their building — then immediately behind Sacred Heart — I was being subtly recruited into the department.
I loved geology then, and I love it now, although I was transformed into majoring in engineering science because I had lately been convinced that breadth of learning was more important than specialized depth. Regrettably, I do not recall the name of that elderly professor of geology, but he is undoubtedly known now in heaven as a scholar of the earth who was also a shepherd of youth.
Notre Dame was heavily involved in community outreach well before that term became fashionable. I was taught Morse code as a Boy Scout by Arthur Quigley, professor of electrical engineering. The industry-savvy Quigley would later teach me as a junior the intricacies of semiconductors, then for registered academic credit. Since he and many other professors lived within walking distance of the University, they were my neighbors and easily accessible during elementary school years for after-school tutoring or Scout activities. Many of my parents’ friends were University administrators and professors, although Mom was a homemaker and Dad a company man, and as such were not professionally or personally oriented toward academic life.
But the professors who were also neighbors, Scout leaders, canoe trip partners and parish members, lived the life of teaching not only for their tuition-paying classroom students but for any pre-collegiate novice learner they encountered. Even a benefactor could take interest in and initiate a conversation with an anonymous juvenile walking home down the then cinder-paved sidewalk of Notre Dame Avenue — as Joseph A. LaFortune, class of 1915, walked with and shared his admiration for the University with me well before I had graduated from high school.
Possibly our most endearing neighbor was three houses to the west on Angela. That was the venerable Joe Casasanta, director of bands. The astute reader will recognize that name as the composer of “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” the alma mater. Joe was another of these people who joyfully infused the aura of Notre Dame into everyone he encountered. He was not above spraying you with the garden hose as you rode past his house on a bike, however. He knew that far from deterring us, it would only spur us to race with greater speed. I mowed his lawn. To this day I consider being the lawn guy of Joe Casasanta to be in rank equivalent to that of Father Hesburgh’s barber.
I mowed all the neighbors’ lawns and shoveled their snow, but doing that for Joe and for history Professor Marshall Smelser and library director Victor Schaefer was in some way different. They seemed to be more interested in you and what you were up to. They were teachers of the whole man in the tradition of Origen and the classical school of Alexandria. Education was not about learning specialized facts, it was about learning life and forming the person.
In the later classroom environment, it was also clear that the Catholic professors, whether research-oriented or not, were focused on education. Secular experts from specialized disciplines, all well-qualified and voluminously published in their research, admirably trained the student, but were of lesser consequence in developing the man.
That posture by the University at large facilitated it to allow feral Boy Scouts to hold their annual Scout-O-Rama under the very stands of hallowed Notre Dame Stadium. That was the original 1930 brick structure with a cinder-paved promenade beneath the seating. Such medieval accommodations were perfect for displaying Boy Scout handiwork, which would include not only ersatz Indian leatherwork but also displays of indigenous snakes and turtles.
Best of all was the nearby vacant property at the north end of Eddy Street, an essential piece of landscape known colloquially as the Notre Dame Dump. The University permitted us Scouts to manually ax-harvest logs from the woods that screened the Dump so we could build a rope-secured infrastructure of towers and rope monkey bridges at the Scout-O-Rama.
I cannot say for sure whether the University was actually asked for permission, but it is safe to say that were we to make such a request in this age, the required insurance would exceed the combined household budgets of all involved. I thank the scoutmasters and our guardian angels that I grew up in an age of freedom to excel and not the age of permissiveness to be indifferent. I am equally grateful to the powers of heaven that neither I nor my companions lost life or limb on those projects.
The new library may have been the greatest treasure of my University-grafted youth. After school, I watched in fascination as foundation piles were hammered into the subterranean sandy strata that stretches out from Lake Michigan. When the steel skeleton was erected it formed an invitation for me and my co-conspirators one night to climb up the ironwork stairs to the penthouse. That was one instance where the security services actually made a catch — albeit without us getting a record.
Once the library was completed, it was, like many of the University facilities, as yet unrestricted to a mannerly kid, who may not have even looked much like a student, to browse the stacks and begin reading the 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization. Perhaps, unbeknown to me, it may have helped that our good neighbor and grocery store ride two doors down was the library director. Perhaps Notre Dame was just that kind of open institution.
South Bend was a blue-collar company town that turned out Studebaker cars and Oliver tractors. Understandably, the fine arts were not easy to find. One took the South Shore to Chicago to avail oneself of culture. But this early teen special alumnus needed to walk only as far as Washington Hall and seamlessly mix with the student body to attend avant-garde films, Daniel Pedtke’s Glee Club concerts and lectures by such giants of literature as Norman Mailer — all available without question or cost. My peers may have been oppressed by Midwestern boredom, but I could immerse myself at will into a level of fine and literary arts that rivaled the offerings of more cosmopolitan cities.
When I became a bona fide registered student, Notre Dame provided a classical liberal education even for deracinated technology geeks. No secular institution could provide the experience of Professor Father Peter Riga, who presented himself as a latter-day avatar of the prophet Amos in teaching Sacred Scripture while railing against the Vietnam War. I had never been so concerned for the fate of my country then — until now. Admittedly, I and probably the majority of my fellow students at that time did not fully appreciate the pearls being cast to us. But there were seeds then planted that in our more mature years are beginning to sprout stronger tendrils of the faith.
While attending my 40th reunion (a year of biblical import marking return from exile to the promised land), I was initially struck by the building-over of my old fields of play, the shrinking of the old campus by contrast, and the intrusive, corporate-like security. Yet there was still the intimacy of hall chapel Mass and the grandeur of Mass for thousands in the Joyce Center. The Hammes Bookstore is as always an indispensable visit — a treasure of authors such as George Weigel and the late Ralph McInerny not found in more wisdom-challenged secular stores. There was still the ability to chat amiably with anonymous alumni and talk personally with the venerable rector of the Basilica of Sacred Heart, where my wife, Lyn, and I were married in November of 1968. Father Ted spoke in his sermon then about the need to raise a university to Our Lady that fit the heavenly ambitions she had mystically conveyed to Father Sorin.
In my heart there is also the need to maintain the informal openness and welcoming attitude the Notre Dame community offered me as a youth. That formation as a component of education is at least as important and lasting as anything acquired in a classroom. The new classrooms are state-of-the-art techno-wonders with stadium seating and computer networking. But there was also a familial charm to the non-air-conditioned, blackboard-dominated classrooms grafted within the Main Building and the old engineering building. The hieroglyphics carved into those wooden desks spoke of student cultures past that the present student could either relate to or be amused by, but not be unmindful of their tradition.
The question coming out of my reunion experience is “Quo vadis, Notre Dame?” Yes, there must be growth. There must be research to rival the prestigious secular institutions. There must be internationally renowned members of the faculty and, in an unmannerly society, the campus must be secure from intrusion. Yet the measure of success for the institution’s primary mission will always be the way by which students and the neighboring community are formed into faith-filled maturity.
From my earliest years, Notre Dame poured out formative knowledge. It was a kenosis of intellectual Catholic culture overflowing into the ethnic South Bend parishes and parochial schools that revered it. I pray that others who follow me will have an opportunity to share that evangelical, free-flowing river of wisdom and grace into the future indefinite.
Don Anderson retired after 38 years of service in the Bell System. He and his family now reside in Flemington, New Jersey.