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Veteran ushers uphold tradition

Eileen Duffy | Monday, October 9, 2006

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, and deep in the bowels of Notre Dame Stadium, Cappy Gagnon is deploying his troops.

“Stanford will be here at two [for a walk-through], and they want no one in the bowl,” says the coordinator of stadium personnel.

Gagnon points, relaying the men to their posts, and five bright gold brims nod back at him.

They are not widely acclaimed, and most never even earn a penny. But each home football weekend, 857 men and women still migrate from 21 different states to South Bend to be Notre Dame Stadium ushers.

Seen from above on a Saturday, the stadium crowd is dotted with gold-jacketed ushers – they’re stationed on the field, in the press box and every five to six rows in between. Outside the brick walls, they line the perimeter of the stadium, guard entrances to campus and oversee parking lots.

From taking (valid) tickets to spying secret imbibers to escorting football recruits on and off the field, Gagnon said, each usher’s duties are as significant as the next’s.

“Everybody’s job is critical,” he said. “Any usher could have a situation occur which would make him the most important usher that day.”

Usher William “Red” Clynch proved essential during the soggy Sept. 30 Purdue game, when a man in his section fell.

“I saw him coming out of row 36, and the stairs are pretty slippery. He just went down headfirst and hit his head on the concrete,” Clynch said. “I signaled for medical attention and kept everybody clear of the way till the medics came.”

When the game was over, Clynch returned to his room at the Motel 6, where he stays between consecutive home games – it’s not worth going back to his hometown of Durby, Conn. for such a short time.

While Clynch has four years under his belt, Morris Zink has nearly 50 more.

Zink cut his teeth as an usher in 1953, the last year Frank Leahy coached the squad. An unplanned half-century later, Zink remains.

“I didn’t know I’d be here for this many years, but I’ve enjoyed it, so I’m still here,” he said. “I’m still enthused about working and I have no plans to retire soon.

“Cappy’s going to have to put up with me for a while yet.”

Of all the games Zink has seen, one stands out in his memory. In 1980, Notre Dame played Michigan. Down two points with very little time left, the Irish drove to within several yards of Michigan’s goal line. On fourth down, a field goal would win the game – but the wind was blowing hard against kicker Harry Oliver.

“The minute they lined up, the wind died down. It really did! The flags fell still,” Zink said.

Oliver kicked the field goal and Notre Dame won the game.

“That was probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen,” Zink said.

And while Zink has seen marvelous things, other ushers – like Ajax Arvin – have done them. A 44-year veteran who drives 156 miles to usher on game days, Arvin recalls the medicine bottle he once found in post-game litter.

“It was quite important for a terminal disease. But it had the address on it, it was somewhere in Pennsylvania, so I mailed it,” he said. “I got a call thanking me because the medicine was so expensive.”

While Arvin signed up to usher because he couldn’t buy football tickets and wanted to see the game, usher Sue Adent just wanted an excuse to return to Notre Dame Stadium after her son Joseph, a football walk-on, graduated in 1996.

“We wondered, what do we do on game weekends? We heard Cappy was hiring women … hence, here I am, almost 10 years later,” Adent said.

Gagnon opened the usher position to women when he was hired in 1995. Since his arrival, he’s also established stricter uniform rules – all ushers wear white shirts and ties (or for ladies, “neckwear”) – and depending on where they’re located, they wear either a yellow vest or a yellow jacket. All wear colored hats signaling their ranks; gold is reserved for the highest-ranking ushers. Ushers said Gagnon has also established “Welcome to Notre Dame” as the official usher phrase, and asks his staff to say it as often as possible.

“I guess [ushering] is mainly just being what Notre Dame should be – friendly and open, smiling at people,” Adent said. “I help people love Notre Dame just as much as I do. I want them to go home and say, ‘I had a great time there.'”

However upbeat today’s ushers may be, they’ll find it hard to compete with the original ushers Knute Rockne hired when the stadium opened in 1930.

The crowd was rarely more than 20,000, Gagnon said, but Rockne hired 1,000 ushers.

“This was a big deal when Rockne started it,” Gagnon said. “It was the Depression. People didn’t have a lot of money, so these men could go to the game.”

According to Gagnon, who has spoken with ushers from that era, Rockne gave them a pep talk on the field before their first game. He showed them how to lead a lady to her seat: grasp her hand and her elbow and guide her up the steep stairs.

“It was a courtlier time back then,” Gagnon said.

Sixty-six years after it began, Clynch says he’s thrilled to be a part of the tradition of greeting people in a friendly atmosphere.

“It’s like being in heaven,” he said.