In the year 2000, I took part in the Universal Notre Dame Celebration on a warm May morning in Washington. It began with the celebration of Mass in a function room of the Capitol Hill Hyatt and followed with brunch and an enthusiastic talk by assistant to the president Lou Nanni. I was surprised that the event concluded with the singing of the Alma Mater. The singing was a bit ragged, but everyone knew the words well enough to sing and I found myself deeply affected by the words and melody, as I always am.
We sang the Alma Mater at my father’s funeral in December of 1993. I did not know for sure at the time that Notre Dame had an Alma Mater, one that was still in use, at any rate, but when I received word of Dad’s death, I knew that he would want it sung, if it existed, on this occasion. So I walked over to the house owned by the Congregation of the Holy Cross in the Berkeley hills to see what I could find. I was in the midst of my Ph.D. work at the Graduate Theological Union at the time and had gotten to know some of them thanks to the ecumenical environment there. Sure enough, the seminarians there, Notre Dame grads all, had a recording and a copy of the words as well, both of which they lent me.
I was not interested in Notre Dame when it came time to apply to colleges in the fall of 1968. Even though Dad was class of ‘35, he did not talk about it much. I knew very little about it except for what a high school friend, one year ahead of me, told me at a party around Christmastime of my senior year. He painted an almost terrifying picture of men without women; men as the nights grew longer and colder thumbing through the telephone directory in search of a St. Mary’s number, in order to call someone, known or unknown, just to hear a female’s voice. “I’ve met a great bunch of guys,” he said, “but I haven’t had a date since I left high school.”
My heroes during that traumatic decade had been John and Robert Kennedy. I wanted to go to college where they had, or some place like it, in New England, and coeducational. I ended up bitterly disappointed in this quest and had to enroll in a Midwestern liberal arts college instead. It was a dark, terrible time to be in college. The creative, idealistic period of the Sixties was over. The student counter-culture rose one last time in May of 1970 to protest the incursion into Cambodia and the killings at Kent State, but lapsed mostly into cynicism and drugs after that. A student judicial council at my Midwestern college did a rather good job of handling disputes—violations of quiet hours and so on—during my freshman year, but by the time I was a senior, it had completely disappeared, along with quiet hours. Both the dorms and the library were so noisy that I did most of my studying after midnight. Students remained respectful of faculty in the classroom, but the social environment was chaotic, to put it mildly. I remember attending a movie on campus in the fall of 1972, sitting through a haze of smoke and remaining for a few minutes after everyone had left to watch the green-clad buildings and grounds workers gather up the empty beer bottles and forgotten bongs, sweep up the spent roaches, cigarette butts, and depart, dragging out several large garbage bags. One afternoon I heard that our intra-mural football team was having a pre-game practice at one of the off-campus houses. I imagined us throwing the football around in the backyard, but practice turned out to consist of the entire team smoking joint after joint rolled from an immense bag of marijuana on the coffee table.
I recall meeting only two Roman Catholics in college, although there must have been more. The only classroom reference to this Church in which I was raised came from the professor in my introduction to philosophy class, who read to the class a letter from a bishop urging students not to read certain books, after which he called the bishop “an ignoramus.” I did not exactly love my meager Catholic education, but I did not appreciate this shot by a philosophy professor against someone who was not present to defend himself. I did not long remain a practicing Catholic there, but I somehow retained a powerful faith in God, which I learned not to mention very often, and quietly became a religion major. I spent the year following college in Germany, working as a waiter and learning the language, anticipating that I might need it for further studies. There I discerned a calling to college teaching, but wanted something more well-rounded than a pure academic program and decided to enroll in a master of divinity program at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I can go on to a Ph.D. after that, I told myself.
Neither parent knew what to make of this choice. If Dad was disappointed by my choice to enroll at a Protestant seminary and not a law school (he often suggested that the legal profession would be the best place for my verbal skills), or by my earlier lack of interest in Notre Dame, he never said so. We had trouble speaking with each other about anything of significance. My mother said nothing about it either. She grew up in the Methodist Church in southern Indiana, but stopped attending church upon reaching adulthood, for reasons that she never discussed. Upon marrying Dad in 1946, she signed the papers one signed in those days agreeing to raise the children as Catholics. After that I do not believe she gave our religious education a moment’s thought.
Roman Catholicism was mostly out of my mind for those three years of seminary, as it had been for four years of college, although it would not be accurate to say that I had therefore become a Protestant. Most Sunday mornings I boarded an IRT train to go down to 18th and Broadway for Aikido classes. I practiced yoga. I spent time at a Sufi learning center in New Lebanon, New York, on the site of what had been a Shaker community on the old road from Boston to Albany. The wooden buildings had a wonderful feel to them. The meditation hall, the basement of a barn, had great acoustics and was the setting for Sufi dances and universal worship. I can’t remember what I answered when asked about my religion.
Memories of what Catholic education I had were mostly unpleasant. Sunday after Sunday, trembling with terror before the mirthless gaze of bony-fingered nuns, we brought forth the memorized answers out of the Baltimore Catechism and occasionally listened to the sisters tell us how enlightening it would be to attend the parish school every day. My brother and I were public school kids in a suburb where the public schools were better academically than the parochial ones. We were proud of our public school, loyal to our classmates there, and could not imagine volunteering to endure this torture on a daily basis.
People create places that remind them of their purpose, like the Lincoln Memorial, or more close at hand, the Grotto we just visited.
A lot of Catholic kids ended up in my public high school. After eight years of Catholic education, many parents decided they just could not afford any more. Perhaps because of the influx of numbers, Catechism class on Sunday morning transformed into something much better: meetings on weekday evenings in the homes of married couples who led discussions and let us smoke. Instead of just the bedraggled few on Sunday morning, there were suddenly a lot of us. The teachers treated us like young adults with something to say. Looking back, I can see the seeds of my vocation in campus ministry being planted in the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Harrington.
Towards the end of my time in seminary, I decided to postpone Ph.D. studies for a while and apply for positions in campus ministry. Perhaps it occurred to me that, having been miserable in college myself, I might be helpful to others in similar circumstances. I put my résumé together, got on a mailing list that advertised openings in campus ministry, and shortly became Associate Chaplain at Dartmouth College. My ministry there consisted of a number of social justice projects (the threat of nuclear war in the early ‘80s, world hunger) of which I am still proud, but my most vivid memories are of conducting the sessions of drug and alcohol education, the weekly service of evening prayer, and delivering benedictions at commencement that brought tears to the eyes of the Classes of ‘34 and ‘35. I also became officially Protestant, joining the Congregational church in town and being ordained a minister of the Gospel in the United Church of Christ in May of 1981. My parents drove out for the service, which included ministers from several denominations and Fathers Nolan and Devlin from the Catholic campus ministry at Dartmouth. By that time I had collaborated with Fr. Devlin on a number of projects and occasionally went to Mass at Aquinas House.
My adventures at Dartmouth can make for a long story, but for the readers of this essay who know nothing of Dartmouth, let me say that it is remarkably similar to Notre Dame. Both institutions were founded by clergymen of boundless energy, unshakeable faith, enormous vision, and uncanny fund-raising ability. Eleazar Wheelock was a Congregationalist, as, of course, was Edward Sorin, C.S.C. Although, for sentimental reasons, it will always be “Dartmouth College,” it, like Notre Dame, is really a small university. Yet the undergraduate college still is preeminent at both institutions. Both are relatively isolated and attract a vigorously healthy, athletic, and outdoorsy student body. Their students generally do not smoke, but are known to enjoy a drink. Both schools went coeducational at about the same time, after long and fractious debate, in the early ‘70s, somewhat after their sister institutions. Both schools regard themselves, quite proudly, as upstarts compared to the larger and wealthier schools with which they compete. Both schools owe their origins to the impulse to educate the children of the Indian tribes and began with a modest but still revered structure on what was then the edge of the wilderness. Both schools now attract a diverse student body from the best schools all across America, but until relatively recently were more regional schools that drew heavily from rather ordinary (by today’s gruelingly competitive admissions standards) middle class and working class kids, who became fervently devoted to their school. To this day, their students are among the few who can easily sing all the words to their Alma Mater, and often do. On solemn occasions they drape arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth while they sing. I was astonished to see this liturgical action during halftime at the Purdue game this fall. You will see it at every Dartmouth Commencement. A line from Dartmouth’s Alma Mater could easily fit Notre Dame’s: “Though ‘round the girdled Earth they roam, her spell on them remains.”
The major dissimilarity is that Notre Dame is still very Catholic, while Dartmouth is just barely Protestant. Counting priests and other religious in the residence halls, the office of campus ministry and the Basilica, there are close to 100 people at Notre Dame who spend most of their time promoting Roman Catholicism, and this tally does not even count many of the faculty, the president, deans, and administrative officers. At Dartmouth, one or perhaps two people promote Protestantism. Strictly speaking, I did not so much promote Protestant Christianity when I was there as I promoted a secularized responsibility to do good. My job description called for me “to further and foster the moral and spiritual work and influence of Dartmouth College.” Looking back, I would describe my job as attempting to spread a sacred canopy by myself, literally spreading an immense circus tent with only one pair of hands, or at most, two. I occasionally wondered how the more religious schools addressed the matter of values and ethics. I occasionally thought of calling someone at Notre Dame to ask, but never got around to it.
Finally the little bit of free time allowed by Ph.D. work years later gave me the opportunity to pursue the matter. I asked Dad how to address the Notre Dame equivalent of college chaplain. He assured me that the person I needed to write was “the Prefect of Religion.” A few weeks later I received a brief, but polite letter from Richard McBrien, chairman of the Theology Department, informing me that my letter had been forwarded to him. The title “Prefect of Religion” was no longer in use, he informed me, and had not been for at least 50 years. He suggested that I write to Fr. Andre Leveielle, Director of Campus Ministry, instead.
I arranged the meeting with Fr. Andre, flew from Berkeley to Chicago, where my parents still lived, and invited Dad to drive with me to Notre Dame for the day. We drove out on a surprisingly warm and sunny day early in the spring of 1989 to walk around the campus I but dimly remembered. It was certainly in the back of my mind that this visit would be rewarding both professionally and personally. At that particular time, my Dad could walk faster than I could, for I had just torn cartilage in my knee. (It’s fixed now.) We gazed at Touchdown Jesus, stood in front of Walsh Hall, where Dad had lived on the top floor, stopped by the Basilica, much brighter than I remembered, and came to the Grotto, which, unaccountably, I had completely forgotten. I believe that we knelt for a moment before heading over to the Morris Inn for lunch.
Whether one considers these places patriotic, or religious, or both, they are more than something nice to look at; they deeply inform peoples’ lives.
Then there occurred one of the few times, perhaps the only time, that I have communicated at all adequately to my Dad what I was doing with my life. I had just begun my doctoral work, but had a fairly clear dissertation topic: something, I explained, over Golden Dome dressing on a green salad, next to the mural of the old university buildings and the view of the golf course, about the relationship between people and places—how people create places that remind them of their purpose, like the Lincoln Memorial, or more close at hand, the Grotto we just visited. Whether one considers these places patriotic, or religious, or both, they are more than something nice to look at; they deeply inform peoples’ lives. “I guess I’m writing about sacred places and their effect on people.” He looked at me in a way he had not looked for years and said, “That’s right; the Grotto: it’s a sacred place.” For the first time since President Kennedy was assassinated, I saw tears in Dad’s eyes.
We walked a bit more after lunch, running into my cousin once removed on one of the campus walks. I had my long talk with Fr. Andre about campus ministry in the modern university, then met Dad at the Morris Inn, retrieved the car, and got on the same tollway we had driven out to Notre Dame and the Indiana Dunes in years past, back around Chicago to Park Ridge. Although little was said in the car—Dad was never much of a talker—an important dimension had been added to our relationship and my love for Notre Dame began.
During subsequent days, memories of our previous two trips to Notre Dame slowly surfaced in my mind: of meeting my cousin Susan, a student at St. Mary’s, one cloudy day in the late spring when I was about eight, whose daughter we had just run into; the brilliant autumn day of my second visit, my senior year of high school, a perfect football afternoon when LeRoy Keyes and Purdue cut swath after swath through the Irish defense. Yet another memory surfaced and stood out from all the others: a brief moment during our first visit—one of few times we went somewhere as a family (most of our outings, as we called them, were just Dad and the boys)—when Mom, Dad, my brother, and I came upon the Grotto. One minute we were walking on tree-lined walks past various buildings, then there was this cave, behind us and to our left, and all these candles. Without a word, Dad sprang to the wooden kneeler, bowed his head and struck his chest the way one did in the old days during the Kyrie, leaving us astonished at this spontaneous act of devotion.
I also remembered entering the Basilica, full of dark brown wood in those days, plain dark floor and walls, watching the janitor pushing a broom up and down the aisles, then stopping to genuflect every time he came up to the altar. “You mean he has to do that every time?” Mom asked, clearly not understanding that this act of devotion may well have been (and probably was) a heartfelt act of devotion. Dad just nodded, as if he were slightly embarrassed by these acts of piety, his own just a few minutes before and the janitor’s. They must have been too deep for words.
I began to wonder why Dad had spoken about Notre Dame so little and why we had not visited again, not until the fall of my senior year in high school when we drove out for the Purdue game. Dad was too reticent to drive out a day early so that we could meet with an admissions dean. We did not say much on the way out or the way back. We walked around the campus briefly beforehand and left quickly afterward as Dad was often in a hurry and always hated crowds. How much was unsaid, how seldom Dad revealed what was deep within his heart.
He graduated from Notre Dame in the depths of the Depression. His dad was the master mechanic for the Rock Island Railroad, supervisor of hundreds, if not thousands of employees. While the railroad did not exactly thrive during the Depression, Grandad made enough money to send his son and two daughters to college. While his two sisters went to Drake, the university just a few miles from their house in Des Moines, Dad went to Notre Dame. I often wondered what drew him there. The only clue I have is his mentioning one day, apropos of I forget what, that he had heard Rockne speak at his high school assembly.
That must have been it, one of those events in a young man’s life that sends it in a direction that only later seems inevitable, part of the essential fabric of a life. Knute Rockne delivers inspirational speech (he certainly could have done that) and Richard Dean Hyde goes away to college. He returns to Des Moines to spend the remaining years of the Depression working at a not very inspiring job, but grateful, as even the most exalted Ivy League graduates were then, to be working at all. The Japanese military junta, gambling on surprise and quick victory, attacks Pearl Harbor, altering Dad’s career far beyond the choice of college. In the course of the war, Dad’s travels take him to Cincinnati, where he falls in love with one of the secretaries at the Army base.
Dad did not talk about his war experience very much, but I have been able to piece together that he enlisted in the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. He went immediately to Officers Candidate School and emerged as a second lieutenant, one of many “Ninety-Day Wonders.” Even though he had never taken flying lessons, he became a flight instructor, somewhere in Texas. Since every experienced pilot had to be flying as much as possible, men like Dad instructed new pilots-in-training in the predecessor of today’s highly sophisticated flight simulator. I believe this thing was basically a box with a stick, gears, and pedals that moved around a bit to simulate climbing, diving, and banking. Then he moved on to more administrative tasks, one of which took him to India for a year, to a Royal Air Force base near Calcutta. By this time he had risen to the rank of Captain and had more responsibilities and challenges than ever before or since. He had a valet, spent his free time at the officers’ club, and became acquainted with his British counterparts. Despite the difficult climate, bugs, and threat of disease, he must have had the time of his life.
He returned to Cincinnati in 1946. Mom and Dad were married in the sort of simple ceremony common in those days, attended only by my mother’s sister LaDonna and her husband, Dick, who was still in his Navy uniform, and performed by a priest whose name neither parent ever mentioned. They then entrained for Chicago for a brief honeymoon, spending one night at the Palmer House. Dad casually mentioned one afternoon as we walked through the hotel and past the Pump Room that he and Mom had dined there that evening and that it was a thrill to be whisked, in his country’s uniform, by the maitre’d to a fine table in front. Thus, they had a good beginning, followed by some years in Des Moines, eight years in Minneapolis, then Chicago, where I did most of my growing up.
Every time I visit the Grotto now, I picture my Dad springing to the railing with such urgency, such devotion.
I remember my early childhood as being very happy, but becoming less happy as time went on, until my early teenage years, when I can only say that a great silence descended on the house. Sometime in the 1960s, what began as a decade of hope, this silence descended upon countless households. It descended upon 1424 South Courtland Avenue in Park Ridge, Illinois with a severity that chills me to this day. The causes in my family had more to do with our own internal problems, but the cultural environment certainly played its part. One evening when I was in fifth grade, Dad arrived at the back door grimacing in pain. We never used the front door, always using the door at the side of the house, into the kitchen, the hearth. Then it happened again. And again. One night he simply collapsed on the kitchen floor. It was his back, his lower back. After months of this agony, he finally went to see a doctor. After more months, surgery for a herniated disc, an operation now done very reluctantly. He came home from the hospital grimacing, barely able to bend over. We tiptoed around the house for months afterward, afraid to do anything to set him off.
I had almost forgotten about this time in the family history until I developed pain in the same place and at the same time in my life. Approximately once a year, in the middle of doing what I normally do, my lower back freezes up, as if someone had poured in ready-mix cement. At times, I can hardly move and the pain is bad enough to make me hate just about everyone on the planet that I can think of. In my case, the practice of yoga since I was twenty seems to have helped, as do occasional muscle relaxers and a lot of hot baths.
The first time the Vietnam War was discussed in the house, Dad shocked both of his teenage sons by arguing for an immediate pullout. He reminded us that he had served in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II, invoked the memory of General Stillwell and concluded that we should never get involved in a land war in Asia. But when the protests against the war heated up, he had no sympathy for the protestors. I never heard him say another word about the war, but he had a lot to say about the protestors: he hated them. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, the silence deepened. Dad began to act like a stranger in the world. He spoke less and less, spending much of his time either working in the garden or on the golf course when the weather was good, doing crossword puzzles and double-crostics when winter settled in. His denunciations of the world grew more frequent and more harsh. He was angry about aggressive drivers, welfare moochers, minorities, the government, litterers, young people; angry, angry, angry.
He quit going to church, for the watered-down translations and guitar Masses just made him angrier. I learned later from talking with Mom that he had hated his boss for about the last ten years of his career with the large corporation for which he worked. She said that long before that he had been resentful of returning from the war to find that the 4-Fs had been promoted ahead of him. Dad never got a major promotion. From the time he returned to work in 1946 until he retired in 1973, he remained an assistant real estate appraiser.
Long past now, so suddenly, were sun-dappled walks at the Indiana Dunes in the fall, visits to the museums and snowball fights in the winter, hikes in the forest preserve in the spring to glimpse the passing warblers through field glasses, with our good old Dad. Even if we were new to this suburb of Chicago and missed our neighborhood and friends in Minneapolis, my brother and I still had our Dad and we had fun every weekend. Then, suddenly, our parents had aged quickly and not gracefully. They became only briefly active in their new community, then just stayed home. Dad never fully recovered from his back surgery. Trips in the car with him grew increasingly silent, a grim sort of duty to get somewhere and get back.
Yet there were many good times. I always looked forward to coming home for Christmas. Christmas dinner, roast chicken or turkey with all the trimmings, followed by plum pudding, coffee, and cigars was a carefully followed family ritual. I always came home for a week or two every summer and enjoyed playing golf with Dad, not because I liked the game very much, but because I enjoyed doing something with him. He and I had some wonderful times at Dartmouth in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, especially in the fall, when he usually visited on his own. When I first got there, he sent me a clipping from The New Yorker, an article by Calvin Trillin about Dartmouth. “The students still sing the Alma Mater,” it began. I showed him the natural splendor of the College’s surroundings, the Appalachian Trail that wandered through the town of Hanover, and, most important of all, Dartmouth’s own sacred place, Mt. Moosilauke. There, at the base of the mountain, the giant-timbered Ravine Lodge has taken in generations of students every fall who begin their college years with three days of hiking followed by a feast and square dance at the lodge. He could tell that I loved Dartmouth. The job was difficult, but had many rewards, as working with bright young people always does.
After leaving Dartmouth in 1985, I served some small congregations in Vermont before beginning my Ph.D. work in Berkeley, where I met the Notre Dame graduates who were training for the priesthood. Upon learning of my Notre Dame connection, distant though it was, they warmly welcomed me to their house on many occasions. Thanks to my time at Dartmouth, I immediately understood their love for Notre Dame and was surprised by how quickly I came to share it. I recall having meals and watching several football games with them, including one when Dad came to visit. I was deeply touched by how respectful they were of him, who by then was showing the signs of the breakdown of his nervous system that led to his death a few years later. They handled his fits of temper extremely well.
In the fall of 1992, when I visited home briefly, Dad unaccountably refused to go down paths in the forest preserve we had walked on for years. His driving became undeniably dangerous. That winter he slipped and fell on the ice while he was out jogging. Then his speech began to slur and everyone could tell that something was wrong. Of all the infirmities of his mind and body, this one affected me the most. For all of my life, whatever our differences, Dad’s voice rang like a bell. “How good to hear your voice,” he always responded to my telephone calls, in his clear tenor. I loved to hear his voice. Then he started slurring his words as if he were drunk. By then it was early in the summer of 1993, which I took off to come home and help take care of him. A trip to the neurologist finally revealed that he had some odd variant of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which causes no physical pain, but simply and inexorably shuts down the body’s nervous system. By the end of the summer, Dad could not speak at all, could not walk, and was in a constant state of rage, a weirdly distorted version both physically and spiritually of the man he once was. When I invited a priest over to visit, he did not want to receive the Eucharist. I do not believe that he lost his faith; he had truly lost his mind.
He passed away on December 2, 1993. When I told the Irish-born priest at Mary, Seat of Wisdom Church in Park Ridge that I wanted Notre Dame’s Alma Mater sung at the funeral, he looked at me askance. Somehow I had the presence of mind to surmise that he first of all did not understand the affection Americans have for their universities and, most importantly, did not know the difference between a fight song and an Alma Mater. I showed him the words, which he studied carefully. Finally a look of surprise crossed his face and he looked up, saying, “Why, this is a hymn to Our Lady.”
The funeral Mass took place a few days later under a slate-gray sky. During my eulogy I recited Dad’s favorite poem, “The Lake Isle,” one of many that he could recite from memory, a poem about a sacred place. We once recited it together, over dessert and coffee in my favorite Berkeley restaurant. Bernie O’Brien, Dad’s roommate from Walsh Hall, was there, along with some other classmates, who helped the rest of us sing the Alma Mater.
Every time I visit the Grotto now, I picture my Dad springing to the railing with such urgency, such devotion. I am struck by the power of this sacred place, how it must have sustained my father in his college years and how, during the same period in my life, in an alien place, I responded to that same force. The old words at the beginning of Mass come to mind: I will go up to the altar of God, the God of my gladness and my youth.
Featured Photo: Greg Nelson; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.