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Living the dream

Joe Hettler | Friday, May 13, 2005

His voice cracked, the pitch rising to an unusual level.

I have only witnessed my father cry four times during my life. The first three were at grandparents’ funerals. The fourth was on March 30, 2001 – the day I was accepted into Notre Dame.

That day, as he had the past three days, Dad drove from work to the mailbox around lunchtime. I skipped out early from my Honors Anatomy class, with my teacher’s permission of course, to anxiously call and discover if the mailman had delivered the verdict. Dad answered my call and I immediately asked the standard questions:

“Is it there?”

“Yes.”

Here we go, I thought. “Is it thick or thin?”

“Thin.”

Oh Lord, I thought, I didn’t make it.

Then my Dad’s voice jumped in to rescue my fears.

“But, it says ‘Congratulations’ on the outside.”

“Well open it up and check to make sure!” I barked back.

I could hear him ripping through the envelope before he began reading, “Congratulations, Joseph, you have been accepted …” His voice trailed off. The consciousness of knowing just how badly I wanted to attend Notre Dame overtook him, and my Dad, a man who never cried, couldn’t help himself. He choked up.

That, to me, is what Notre Dame is all about.

Now, four years later, I’m writing my last column for the last Observer of the year. The past two weeks I went to Corby’s, Rumrunners, State and ‘Backer with friends for the last time. In the fall I experienced my last set of pushups in the student section after an Irish touchdown. And Sunday night I’ll attend the Grotto for the last time in college.

For someone whose nickname is “Johnny Notre Dame,” who memorized most of the football media guide by age eight and who, at age six, cried himself to sleep in his parents’ bed after witnessing the Irish lose 27-10 to Miami in the 1989 season finale, snapping a 23-game winning streak nonetheless, all these “lasts” have been tough to swallow. Being a student at Notre Dame was my dream. Now it’s over. I have often joked to friends or family that if I died tomorrow, I’d be happy because I’ve accomplished everything I ever wanted in life – I attended Notre Dame.

But through this final semester under the Dome, I’ve realized there’s two ways to look at this whole graduation thing. You can look back on your experience at Notre Dame and be sad because it’s over. Or you can be thankful for having the opportunity to attend Our Lady’s University.

I choose the latter for more reasons than imaginable.

I’ve learned so much during the past four years from inside, but mostly outside, the classroom. I’ve seen the good and bad Notre Dame has to offer.

I’ve never been prouder of this school as I was at the Sept. 11, 2001 Mass on South Quad, when 6,000 people who hardly knew each other joined together as one family and tried to help comprehend the events that had just transpired.

I’ve been disappointed too, like when SYRs were taken away from the dorms after freshman year.

But through it all, I’ve been blessed to meet and befriend more incredible and fantastic people than anyone, especially myself, deserves. I’ve met people who would take a bullet for me in an instant, people who stick with me despite all my faults and limitations and people who make me proud to be their friend. I’ve found these friends from places I didn’t know existed – like Roanoke or Highland, Ind. – and others I did – like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. And I’ve never taken any of them for granted. Not once.

When graduation ends, I’m doing what’s been four years in the making. I’m going to walk over to the Main Building and slowly make my way up the front staircase. I’ll turn my class ring around, pointing the Dome outward, and breathe in the moment. It’ll be bittersweet, no doubt. But I’m certain I won’t be sad. Simply thankful I was lucky enough to spend four years experiencing life with the most wonderful people I’ve ever met.

The late golfer Payne Stewart once said “The best thing about having dreams is sometimes you get to live them out.” He couldn’t have been more right. To everyone who helped me live out my dream here under the Golden Dome, thank you. You will never know how much you touched my life and made me a better person.

Goodbye for now, I hope our paths cross many times in the future. And the next time you’re out remembering college and the great experiences you lived through, have a drink for me.

Somewhere, I’ll be doing the same for you.

Joe Hettler is graduating with a degree in marketing and journalism and will be living in Alabama for the next two years teaching little elementary school students the words to the Notre Dame Fight Song, instead of the Pledge of Allegiance. After that, he plans on making nickels and dimes writing for a newspaper. He would like to thank everyone at The Observer, especially Meghanne Downes and Matt Lozar, for their patience and help during the past four years. On a side note, he still plans to name his first-born, boy or girl, Knute.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.