“Do not bring a car to campus.” Signed by James A. Roemer, Notre Dame dean of students. July 1975.
Bill Millman Jr. and I, classmates at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury, Connecticut, both got accepted to Notre Dame in the spring of 1975. In high school, we had shared real stuff, like heated arguments about unimportant subjects, basketball and girlfriends. Loyalty and competition marked our friendship. After both settling on ND, we dove into planning our maiden voyage to campus. It wasn’t long before Bill proposed driving out in his 1969 MGB-GT and keeping it there for the school year. After all, it would be the most cost-effective way to get there, and, oh, yeah, it would be useful to have a car (you know, in case there was an emergency or something).
In 1975, official Notre Dame policy prohibited freshmen from having cars on campus. After much debate on whether we should just chance it or ask permission, we did what all good, bright, Catholic-educated young men do—we wrote a letter requesting an exception to the rule. Our situation was clearly special. We believed that the responsible university authority would see that and readily grant our request. We worked hard on the tone and sincerity of the request, and once finished we felt confident.
It is 30 years since Bill and I wrote that letter. As is the case for all of us, time has changed our lives. In March 2000, Bill died after fighting a courageous 10-month battle with cancer. Once so close, we drifted apart during our college years. After graduation we both settled back in Connecticut. Although he was living with his wife, Pamela, and their kids Jessica and Matthew only 40 miles away, we had not been in touch for many years. I didn’t learn of his passing for six months. For me, the memory of Dean Roemer’s letter has triggered a rediscovery of that 1975 trip to ND and a lost friend.
Our request letter went out sometime in June. By mid-July we had an answer. Dean Roemer’s response started with congratulations on our acceptance but quickly turned more formal, a chillier tone reciting the University’s policy regarding freshmen and cars. Indelibly etched in my ND memory banks are those words, typed (yes, pre-word processors) in red: “Do not bring a car to campus.” I recall thinking: Whoa; who is this Roemer guy?
We had been flatly turned down—something neither of us was used to. And so the real planning began. In no time the “chance-it” approach took hold. If only we had someplace off-campus to keep the car—far away enough to not be “on-campus” but close enough to be easily reached. Far enough to keep our secret safe from new dorm buddies and classmates, yet close enough to feel like we had “wheels.”
Enter family history. My father, Dom Jr., graduated from Notre Dame (class of 1952, BSEE), as did his brother, my uncle Donald (class of ‘50, BSEE). During his time a ND, Don met and eventually married Marjorie Ruetz, a vivacious coed from Saint Mary’s College. Fortunately for me and Bill, Aunt Marj grew up in South Bend at the old Ruetz homestead at 1121 N. Saint Peter Street. North Saint Peter is about a 10-minute walk from the Circle, one block west of Notre Dame Avenue. And in 1975, Marj’s folks were still living on North Saint Peter with her brother, Father Ed.
The Ruetz family is steeped in ND tradition. Margaret and Joseph Ruetz had seven children. All five boys attended Notre Dame: Joe ‘38, Ray ’43, Ed ’47, Bob ’50 and Tom ’60. Their two daughters, Gen and Marj, both attended Saint Mary’s College. Now that truly is a Notre Dame/Saint Mary’s family!
Once I mentioned the possibility of approaching the Ruetzs about keeping the car at their house, Bill was all over me. After another letter and some discussions with Aunt Marj and Mr. Ruetz, we were in. The car would be “housed” at the Ruetz residence. The lawyer-to-be was already obvious in Bill during those days. With the Ruetz arrangement in place, he declared that we would not be in violation of ND policy since we would technically have our car “off-campus.” Still, we nervously plotted how to keep the MG secret.
The late August departure day finally rolled around. A 1969 MGB-GT is a relatively small car. The silver two-door, two-seater (plus a back “bench” seat) featured a sloping glass hatch that provided access to the cargo area. With clothes, shoes, sports equipment, coats (our mothers were very concerned with those harsh Midwestern winters), typewriters and stereos, the MG was filled to the gills. It even included my portable drafting table, which every aspiring young architect had. Having packed the MG the day before, Bill drove from his home in Middlebury and picked me up at my house in Naugatuck. I said my good-byes (I remember Mom teared-up) and jumped into the MG, ready to go. The last thing I remember was Dad being upset that the car was so packed that the driver couldn’t see out the rearview mirror.
The trip out to South Bend from western Connecticut is all highway. Once we picked-up I-80 in eastern Pennsylvania, we stayed on it all the way to South Bend. It’s a 14-hour drive, plus or minus. We would eventually drive straight through, but on this first trip we stopped at some of Bill’s relatives in Rittman, Ohio, and slept in an RV overlooking a lake. We talked half the night away, still pumped with excitement from the day on the road and the promise of college life at our doorstep. We laughed about our “near-death experience” with a tractor trailer that afternoon someplace in the middle of Pennsylvania.
Being astute, energy-conscious young drivers, we decided to apply the “drafting” maneuver we had seen professional race car drivers use. The concept is simple—if you closely follow the vehicle in front of you, the draft it creates will effectively “pull” your vehicle forward, thereby reducing your fuel consumption. Saving gas saves money; it seemed like a good idea.
Westbound on I-80, with Bill at the wheel, cruising at 80 mph (which feels like 110 mph in a loaded MG) we edged up closely to a tractor-trailer. Immediately, I noticed two things: First, we’re really being pulled, and second, we’re so low relative to the back of the trailer that we can drive right under it. Just as discomfort from our low position behind the truck was growing, a low growling sound was followed by a sudden, frighteningly loud thump on the hood and a blinding crash on our windshield. Not knowing what hit us, Bill swerved to the right, bringing the car to a screeching halt in the breakdown lane. One of the tires on the front of the truck had shed its retread. The tumbling black swirl had barreled right down through the middle of the trailer, hit our hood, then the windshield and careened off the MG’s roof.
Talk about frightening! Bill was convinced that the truck driver did it on purpose because he was upset with our drafting. We paced outside the MG along I-80, counting our good fortune and repeating several times to each other, “Boy, that was the stupidous idea you ever came up with.” We crawled back into the MG. This time, with me at the wheel, we drove on.
On the western side of Ohio, we stopped to gas up and did the usual visual inspection of the car. Dad said to look at the tires and around the outside to make sure everything was OK—I’m not really sure what we were supposed to be looking for, but we always looked! This time we found something. Bill called me over to the rear of the MG, laughing and pointing through the hatch window. “Hey Dom, it doesn’t look like your albums are enjoying the ride.” Panicked, I looked in and saw the Doobie Brothers, Chicago and the Don McLean nested together under the hot glass like taco shells. Unable to reach the warped albums from the inside, and with Bill unwilling to open the hatch from outside (for fear the entire load would explode out the MG’s rear), we drove on. I protested the rest of the way through Ohio and Indiana. It wasn’t until several months later that I was able to put the albums into an oven at an off-campus apartment (10 minutes at 400?—I have no idea how this worked) and get them back into usable geometries.
We made it to ND and started school. The MG stayed parked on the road in front of the Ruetz’s. One of us would go over once every couple of weeks and start it up, just to keep it in shape. It mostly sat idle except for occasional trips for supplies or weekend runs over the Michigan line for refreshments. Only the two of us would take the car out, always vigilant that we had not been followed on our stroll down Notre Dame Avenue toward North Saint Peter Street. After each outing, we would remove the Connecticut license plates. I guess we were afraid that Dean Roemer might be patrolling the streets of South Bend, looking for illegally stored freshmen vehicles. Bill and I both had single rooms in Fisher Hall on the South Quad. We kept the MG secret for the entire school year. And smiles passed between us when our puzzled dorm mates questioned how we were always able to get a case of beer on such short notice.
We took the car home to Connecticut for Christmas 1975 and back to “off-campus” for the spring 1976 semester. At the end of that first year, the MG brought Bill and me home again to Connecticut. I’m not sure what happened to the MG after that. I do remember bringing a different car out to campus for our sophomore year and buying a parking sticker for a student parking lot way over by the ACC, where the old Senior Bar used to be. I would chuckle to myself that the walk to the MG at the Ruetz’s was closer.
For me, third year was spent with the architecture program in Rome. Upon returning to campus in the fall of 1978, I once again got a single in Fisher Hall, where Bill still roomed. Although it was his last year, we didn’t spend much time together. The separate uniqueness of the architecture program consumed me. We no longer played hoops at the Rock or hung together around the dorm. A different set of friends and activities kept us apart. In spring 1979, Bill was preparing for graduation and law school at Georgetown; I was looking forward to my fifth year and design thesis. We didn’t know then (I think we never do), but time and circumstance had already set us on separate paths.
Over the years, my friend Bill and I took several different cars and made lots of trips back and forth from Connecticut to South Bend. But none was ever as special as that first trip and year at Notre Dame with that silver MG.
D. A. Narducci III is a practicing architect, writer and teacher. He and ND architecture classmate Geralyn Hoerauf ’80, live in Southbury, Connecticut, with their two sons, Dom IV and Adam. He can be reached at email@example.com.