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Local leaders welcome Jenkins

Maddie Hanna | Thursday, September 8, 2005

University President Father John Jenkins will be given an elaborate inauguration steeped in Notre Dame tradition in exactly two weeks.

So upon first glance, the informal Wednesday reception for him and 70 prominent community members at South Bend’s HealthWorks Kids’ Museum – featuring giant plastic intestines, dangling skeletons and a transparent box filled with cigarette butts – might have seemed strange.

“Someone described this as a neighborhood block party,” Jenkins said. “It’s just a chance for us to meet people in the community in a relaxed setting.”

Reception attendees munched and mingled informally with Jenkins and staff members in the name of community relations. And when Jenkins made a brief speech, one woman remarked that he stood next to a sign reading “SCABS.”

Despite the laid-back atmosphere, there was a clear theme – maintaining and building upon the existing relationship between Notre Dame and its surroundings.

“What I’ve seen in the last several years is Notre Dame become a larger part of the community,” Mishawaka mayor Jeff Rea said. “Both [University President Emeritus] Father [Edward] Malloy and now Father Jenkins have done great things to reach out to us. And there are tremendous economic benefits.”

Ted Foti, senior vice president at Memorial Health System and co-chair of the community relations advisory group that organized the event, described the relationship as “one of a kind.”

“We are two sides of the same coin,” Foti said. “We will continue to help each other.”

While Jenkins did not go into any specific goals, he emphasized the need to further strengthen community relations.

“What we have to do first is develop a good, sound relationship with the community,” Jenkins said. “Like with any neighbor, we have to work to make this a wonderful community. That’s the overarching goal.”

South Bend mayor Stephen Luecke said he was “just delighted that Notre Dame is a real partner member of the neighborhood.”

He mentioned discussions with the University regarding MetroNet, a fiber optic network running through the community to broadband capacity, and a proposal for a new research park on Edison, “something which could provide opportunities for graduate students.”

Jenkins also referred to the research park in his speech, calling it “a dimension of what we might do to connect with the local community.”

Robinson Community Learning Center director Jay Caponigro said he appreciated the interaction with Jenkins.

“Father Jenkins has been really supportive of what we’re doing, so it’s great for people to know that,” Caponigro said. “He came down [to Robinson], met with our staff and reaffirmed the important role Robinson plays for the University.”

Many community members met Jenkins for the first time at the reception, which Foti said meant the event was “overdue.”

“After Father Jenkins was appointed by the Board, we didn’t know him and we couldn’t find anybody who had familiarity with him,” Foti said. “We’ve had a great relationship with the University in past years, and we want to make sure that continues.”

Those who had their first conversation with Jenkins Wednesday, like Rea, came away with positive impressions.

“One thing I gathered from talking to him was how much he enjoys his job,” Rea said. “You spend your life searching for something you love to do, so that’s great.”