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“Like the Latin for fingernails”: Remembering Hesburgh

Students walked out on Pence’s commencement speech today at Notre Dame. Good. I’m reposting this piece from a few years ago because readers might be interested in the other time ND students protested a commencement speaker, Ronald Reagan in 1981.

We, the class of ’81, didn’t walk out. This year’s students look to be braver than we were….

See below.


When it comes to the Catholic Church and the priesthood, to say that I am deeply conflicted does not begin to get at it. But reading this morning about the death, and the legacy, of Father Ted Hesburgh brought me to tears, and not for just a few seconds. I am still wiping them away.

There are two good appreciations at the Post and the Times, and I am sure hundreds more to come.

Hesburgh was outspokenly liberal and a man of ideas, who was at ease with the powerful but never a panderer to power. The Post piece ends with something of a shot at the current breed of academic CEOs:

In 2001, Father Hesburgh lamented that university presidents had become distant from public affairs.

“Once upon a time chief executives in higher education talked to the press about military policy in the same breath as the Constitutional amendment for the 18-year-old vote, but I wonder whether we’d hear them taking stands on similar topics now,” he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Where we once had a fellowship of public intellectuals,” Father Hesburgh asked, “do we now have insulated chief executives intent on keeping the complicated machinery of American higher education running smoothly?”


I loved the “fishing, steaks and martinis” story, also from the Post piece:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Father Hesburgh to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission at its inception in 1957, a position he held for 15 years, immersing him in confrontations over racial discrimination.

In one of its first actions, the commission held hearings in Southern states to investigate the suppression of the black vote. When it came time to write a report to Congress, Father Hesburgh brought the commission in 1959 to Notre Dame’s Land O’Lakes retreat in Wisconsin for a day of fishing, steaks and martinis — and votes on recommendations that later influenced civil rights legislation.

Eleven proposals won unanimous support from the six commissioners, and a 12th won approval from five. The degree of consensus shocked Eisenhower.

“I told Ike that he had not appointed just Republicans and Democrats or Northerners and Southerners, he had appointed six fishermen,” Father Hesburgh recounted in “God, Country, Notre Dame,” a 1999 memoir written with Jerry Reedy. Eisenhower replied that more federal commissions should be sent to Land O’Lakes to resolve disputes.


What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere. Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.


Hesburgh was an almost mythic presence at ND when I was there. My memory of my four years Under the Golden Dome, from 1977 to 1981, are pretty hazy, but I’m fairly sure I only stood face to face with the great man on two occasions.

The first time was on the very last day of the 1980 spring term. A friend and I had to drop off our housing election forms for senior year. We were stoked about going off-campus and maybe a little panicked we would be forced to pay for on-campus housing if we missed the deadline, so we trudged over to the Administration Building with our forms. It was Saturday and the building was locked up tight. For some reason we banged on the basement door. Nothing. We turned to leave. Then, footsteps. And yes, Father Ted himself threw open the door.

We yammered something about our housing forms and he was all, “Yes, yes, of course. I’ll take them,” and he invited us to introduce ourselves. My friend Chris stuck out his hand and it turned out Hesburgh was on a first-name basis with Chris’ older brother and father, both alums. Chris and Father Ted shot the breeze for a few more minutes and then a lull came and it was my turn to say something.

I blurted out: “Uh, um, I’m Tim Ungs, from Minneapolis.”

He paused a beat, then gazed down at the back of his hand, and said pensively, “Ah, Ungs… like the Latin for fingernails….”


My second face-to-face was when Father Ted handed me my diploma at commencement.

Like maybe a couple hundred other students I had white tape on my graduation cap in tepid protest of Ronald Reagan’s being invited as the commencement speaker (also on hand were Pat O’Brien and Kurt Waldheim).

Reagan’s being chosen as speaker was, in retrospect, not at all unusual. If Hesburgh’s status as America’s preeminent Catholic gave him the sway to have every president come to campus  when he calls them, well, why not Reagan?


But I think people forget how polarizing Reagan was in his day, and his being guest of honor at commencement (his first public appearance since the attempted assassination) divided the campus. That polarization even made it into this history of commencement ceremonies from the Notre Dame alumni magazine.

 Vocal protests against Reagan’s presence at Notre Dame created an especially tense atmosphere. “Every liberal advocacy group, including many from the Catholic left, had been waiting for an opportunity to protest what they considered Reagan’s lack of concern for society’s marginalized members,” [Richard] Conklin [former University spokesman] recalls. More than 1,500 protesters marched outside the Joyce Center while Reagan spoke. Inside, a few students reportedly wore white arm bands and covered their mortar boards with white paper.

Reportedly? I was one of them and we were more than a few.

I remember fairly vividly one gathering at the end of April protesting the savagery of Reagan’s policies, many of which, sadly, have since become mainstream. What made the rally stand out in my memory was that a group of student counter-demonstrators came forward, shouted, and pelted the speakers with eggs. I remember one student was reading poetry in her father’s Notre Dame letter sweater when the eggs rained down. English professor Joseph Buttigieg (whose son is now mayor of South Bend) was treated especially badly as I remember. He contrasted the decorous manifesto of the Students Concerned about Commencement with the counter-protesters’ “Don’t Give the Gipp No Lipp” banner (“a poster made up of mono-syllabids”).



That’s a distillation of my memory of Notre Dame. A small core of passionate progressive people in a generally reactionary environment. That Hesburgh managed to make the university as open-minded as it has become is a testament largely to his energy and powerful personality. Hesburgh didn’t have to embrace civil rights, didn’t have to transfer university governance to a board of lay trustees, didn’t have to be first to admit women undergraduates, didn’t have to battle the Vatican and assert the “Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

He didn’t have to. But he did. RIP Father Ted.


Reflections on one’s team getting screwed by the refs

The talking about the penultimate play of the Notre Dame-Florida State game Saturday night will go on for years, decades. Like arguments about JFK assassination conspiracy theories, or about how the towers fell in 2001, pretty much nothing will be achieved by the endless back and forth, but that never stops the obsessed. Check any comments section in articles about this game. Occasional substantive points do come up, but the comments invariably devolve into your basic trolling abusiveness. The guy who painstakingly makes his case in one post, tells another poster to suck his dick down the page.

I’ve had a couple of days to think about it. For what it’s worth, in my personal Zapruder film of the game, this grainy screen cap tells the whole story. PJ Williams, FSU’s #26, is the man on the grassy knoll, or the guy with the umbrella. (Were they the same guy???) Williams appears to be responsible for Corey Robinson (#88)* and for reasons known only to him, he chose to move to the middle on the snap. I don’t think he was on the same page as his teammates (#3 and #8). His move inside left two defenders to cover three ND receivers on the right side of the field. LOOK WHERE WILLIAMS IS RELATIVE TO HIS MAN ROBINSON. (ALL CAPS–another indicator I’ve become one of the crazies)….

Prosise and Fuller, the two ND receivers “engaging with” FSU’s defenders, could have stepped back off the line, bowed, and waved Williams through, and Williams would never have come near Robinson. This contact everyone is yammering about, which to me looks pretty clearly initiated (and sustained) by FSU’s backs, is irrelevant. Williams lost his man, who was wide open and walked into the end zone. All the TV talking heads in the world saying The Refs Got It Right won’t nullify that.

So there. I’ve spoken my piece. FSU won. They played great. Both teams did. It’s over.  A big setback for Notre Dame, no doubt. If they are to have a chance of making the four-team playoff, the Irish will have to win out, which they would have had to do that even if they got the W in Tallahassee. With Arizona State and USC road games looming (and believe me, they could still stumble against Navy), that looks like a pretty tall order. But not an impossible one.

College football is one of the great grotesque and excessive but infinitely appealing spectacles of the western world, like rock ‘n’ roll or the World Cup or Paris Fashion Week or the Academy Awards. All that training, all that extreme body modification, all that money. ND’s program looks pretty pristine compared to FSU’s, but that’s a long way from saying it’s clean, or even a remotely rational use of resources.

My senior year at ND, back from a Year Abroad, which turned me into an intolerably affected pseudo-European, I sold my football season ticket booklet for something like $49, face value. I used to think I was above it all. But the older I get, the more I realize I’m not.

And see, I haven’t even mentioned THIS!!!!


UPDATE: Today (Monday) I just came upon a pretty good video analysis of The Play from South Bend sports talk host Darin Pritchett, that describes the FSU defensive assignments differently. He may well be right. Doesn’t change my point much, but just wanted to mention it.

Memories of the Big O

This comes in a week where I am dealing with a heartbreaking cancer death in my wife’s family, a subject I’m probably not ready to write about just yet.

But Orlando Woolridge, dead at 52, is a different story. A sort of public figure to whom I have sort of personal connection. His obit mentions his arrest, not too long ago, of stealing piping for scrap. So a doubly tragic story: tragic for dying young, tragic for the obviously troubled life after basketball stardom.

In 1977, I showed up for my freshman year at Notre Dame. It might have been my first day on campus, or maybe my second, but I was in a hurry to find a pickup basketball game. I went up the the vaunted and venerable “Rock”, pulled up my knee socks with the three horizontal stripes at the top, and laced up the All-Stars.

Dunks, rainbow long-range jumpers, alley-oops, shots blocked straight down. Some serious ballin’ going on. After my team of challengers got crushed in short order by the team holding the court, I approached one of the winners at the drinking fountain. “Hey, you’re pretty good. Are you thinking about going out for the varsity.” “Going Out For The Varsity.” My ears redden as I type those words, and they are verbatim. He smiled and shook his head at my cluelessness. “I hope so. I was recruited.”

That was Tracy Jackson, who along with Orlando Woolridge and Kelly Tripucka, were the core of Digger Phelps’ killer recruiting class.

To another guy, the best player on the court, the one dunking on everyone’s heads, I said something similarly oblivious, and asked him his name. “Orlando.” “Rolando?” “No, Orlando.” “Rolando!” After four attempts I got it. Orlando. Woolridge. He was cool about it.

Flash forward three years, to Notre Dame’s storied Bookstore Basketball tournament. 384 teams. Single elimination, games to 21, played rain or shine — or snow. I am on a team with four other scrappy little white guys. For our fourth round game we draw True Blood Express I, comprised of Woolridge and three varsity football players. And another excellent player.

Partly because we were hitting shots, partly because TB Express couldn’t be bothered to look like they were trying too hard, we managed to get the score to 16-15. A big crowd had formed around our game, and eventually our opponents applied a little more pressure to the accelerator, and it was 21-15 before we knew it.

That game was covered in the school paper, which included my name and Woolridge’s in the same paragraph! No question, I was thrilled, and I got minor league-VIP treatment around campus the following day. But there were aspects of that game I really wish I didn’t remember. The crowd’s support for the underdogs was understandable, but there came a point when the cheering for five white guys against five black guys morphed into something ugly and racial. Even locked into the game with my laser-like focus, I heard a lot of things I wish I hadn’t, from people I thought I knew.

I don’t have any overarching commentary about it, other than to say it must have been rough being black at ND in the late 70s/early 80s, even if you were a superstar athlete. I’m betting the racial picture in South Bend has improved since then. Just over-sharing some of the darker memories of those days.

Ask me about the time counter-protesters pelted a girl (wearing her father’s letter sweater) with eggs, as she read Nicaraguan poetry at at anti-war rally on the North Quad.

Below Mike Brey shares his memories of Woolridge.

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