To the Editor

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

The job was a stretch. I figured I had a shot at the “maybe” pile.

In certain particulars, it was ridiculous to think they’d hire me. On paper, my work history and the requirements of the position were enough of a superficial mismatch to justify a quick discard from the editors. That much I knew.

I also knew Kerry Temple ’74. So, sorry to everyone else who applied.

This was 12 years ago, almost to the day. Back then, Kerry and I would have lunch once or twice a year, but otherwise weren’t in regular touch. When a job opened at another magazine, I emailed him about being a reference, asking a lot of him personally and professionally. I wasn’t kidding about the mismatch. To recommend me would mean going out on a little bit of a limb.

Without hesitation — or exaggeration — he did. There were parts of the job he couldn’t speak to my ability to do, he told them (and me), but he vouched for my capacity to grow into the role. That he spoke up on my behalf was really all that mattered.

As an award-winning writer and Notre Dame Magazine editor, his reputation resonated with respect in the ear of the boss over there. I got the job. Without Kerry lending his good name to my cause, I wouldn’t have. That simple.

He waves away the idea that he had that much influence, but it’s true. And then several years later he hired me here, a decisive impact on my professional fate that even he can’t deny.

Those two jobs that I owe directly to Kerry now account for about half my working life. I’m indebted to him for the rest, too — for the intangible way a teacher attunes you to your own aspirations, guiding you to a place where what you do harmonizes with who you are.

Some unfortunate few of us suffer from a compulsion to wrestle into words what we experience and witness. Kerry was the first teacher I encountered who had that.

One of his points of emphasis in class, as I recall, was the importance of that need to write, an essential sense of a calling to this work. If you could imagine not writing for a living, maybe it’s not for you.

Photo by Barbara Johnston

My friend George Dohrmann ’95 and I finagled our way into more of Kerry’s writing courses than the registrar might have considered reasonable. When we tried to sign up again our senior year, Kerry finally said, look, guys, that’s enough. But the thing about writing is that you don’t really learn it in any traditional sense. You read, you write, you talk about it. There is no “enough.”

So we persisted and he relented, creating an “independent study” course for us that involved coffee and conversation at LaFortune. We read. We wrote. We talked about it.

During those discussions, Kerry had the lightest touch, belying the depth of his influence. He cultivated our ideas rather than imposing his own, despite standing before us as the epitome of what we wanted to become. Same thing as an editor. Every facet of the magazine bears his distinctive imprint, but he gives his staff and the voices he invites onto these pages the freedom to express themselves.

In class, he shared a lot of quotes from writers. Here’s one I like attributed to the novelist Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

I know Kerry feels that. Of course, he makes it look easy, sounding grand themes without grandeur, just the granular accumulation of one right word after another. No embellished language. He reads true.

Not that his prolific accomplishment has ever dulled his writer’s self-doubt. I remember Kerry shambling around the classroom with a sort of abashed shrug, his face a little flushed and sweaty, as if wondering what he could possibly have to offer us.

There was a lesson in that, too. No matter how many accolades a writer amasses — and his stature preceded him even back in the early 1990s, before ennobling Notre Dame Magazine for the past 25 years as editor — the effort leaves you a little hunched over, humbled.

He embodied the belief that talking about writing — our failures and other people’s successes, inevitably — was the only way that any of us, teacher and students alike, could do better next time. Kerry and I continued that conversation, off and on, for years after I graduated.

Since I started working here — I would say working “for him,” but he’d object to the phrasing — we’ve kept it up, me lingering in his office door well past my welcome. We talk about teaching now, too, another impossible and impossibly rewarding job I have because Kerry believed I could do it without any reason to think so.

Even this little thank you note piggybacks on a tradition he started. Several years ago, he began writing annual Thanksgiving notes of gratitude to important people in his life. I decided to take his advice “to surprise someone with an expression of appreciation for something they did that made our lives a little better.” 

Here’s how this came to be, behind the editor’s back: An unanticipated theme emerged in our forthcoming winter issue around the inspiring power of professor-student relationships. Kerry decided to write about mentors he remembers and asked the editors if we wanted to contribute anything along those lines. I told him that he was the one teacher I could write about from personal experience. He said, nope, we weren’t going to be doing that.

He’s the boss. A diligent one, too, poring over every word Notre Dame Magazine publishes, in print or online, usually multiple times. 

Except these.

I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if he never makes it this far. So, if you run into Kerry, tell him I said thanks.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.