Ushers relish Stadium experience
Sara Felsenstein | Friday, November 12, 2010
“Welcome to Notre Dame,” they say, with bright yellow jackets and infectious smiles. “It’s good that you’re here.”
There are 850 of them at Notre Dame Stadium, rain or shine, on game days, working up to 12 or 13 hours, arriving from 24 different states and representing a wide range of professions.
Who are they? They are the Notre Dame ushers.
Veteran usher Richard Scheibelhut started his ushering career in the student section 57 years ago, when he was 17 years old.
“I started out one game in the student section, I told them I quit and I’ve been in Section 23 ever since,” he said.
Scheibelhut said one of the best parts about being an usher is interacting with the fans that return game after game. He has seen three generations of families come through his section.
Scheibulhut has not taken a penny in 57 years for his work in the Stadium on Saturdays.
Cappy Gagnon, coordinator of stadium personnel and the head of the ushers, said the majority of the Stadium ushers are volunteers.
“I’d say the primary motivation for people to be ushers is that they want to be part of the game day experience representing Notre Dame,” Gagnon said. “It’s not as comfortable as being a guest — on the other hand, it’s hard to compete with the feeling you have when you’re there early. You open the Stadium and welcome people and take a lot of pride in being part of the Notre Dame experience.”
The usher program dates back to famed football coach Knute Rockne’s day.
“When Rockne first had tryouts for ushers, 1,000 people came out to audition,” he said.
The distinctive caps the ushers wear also started with Rockne. Ushers in the white caps are called captains — they are first level supervisors. Ushers in gold caps are the top supervisors.
Gagnon, a 1966 Notre Dame alumnus, had a background in security and law enforcement before returning to campus 15 years ago to take a job as an usher, because he said he missed being at Notre Dame. Gagnon said his love for the University is a sentiment that many other ushers share and cite as a reason they join the program. In fact, 500 of the 850 ushers work for free.
Gagnon said the usher application process is very competitive.
“The No. 1 qualification is that the person has to be willing to work a long day, and be an ambassador for Notre Dame,” he said. “They have to be hospitable. They have to look out for the safety of our guests in the Stadium, and occasionally have to enforce Stadium rules.”
The ushers come from a variety of backgrounds.
“I have a former ND football player who has a national championship ring, I have an MIT graduate, I have a Yale graduate … I have a range of professions represented [including] a psychologist, architect, lawyers and college professors,” Gagnon said.
Fifteen to 20 of the ushers are parents of former Notre Dame students, and only about eight are Notre Dame alums.
A job as an usher is extremely rewarding, Gagnon said, but there are challenges that come with the job as well.
“The most difficult thing is when you have to remove somebody from the Stadium because of a serious issue, when somebody’s fighting or heavily intoxicated,” he said. “[Another] difficult thing is when you have injuries or illnesses. We’ve had people fall or have heart attacks, or have heat-related issues, those kinds of issues that require a lot of care and concern.”
Gagnon said the student section is the one place in the Stadium where he does not arbitrarily assign an usher. Every usher that works in the student section has volunteered to work there.
“When I ask people ‘why did you sign up to work the student section,’ they all give the same answer, ‘We like the energy of being there with the students.'”
Supervisor Shirley Cox also found that one of the best aspects of ushering is meeting new people.
Cox started as an usher in the mid-90s when Notre Dame first opened up usher positions for women. At the time, Cox’s daughter was a student at Notre Dame.
“[My daughter] got me involved to be an usher … I was visiting with her one day, and she said, ‘Mom, they’re going to be opening up ushers for women, would you be interested?’ I said, ‘I love Notre Dame, I loved it from day one, I would love to do it.'”
Cox said becoming an usher was a way for her to “give back to Notre Dame.”
“I went for an interview … I received the letter that I was one of the ushers, and I was thrilled,” she said.
Cox’s daughter graduated in 1998, but Cox never gave up ushering. In fact, she has moved up the ranks since then. She started in section 108 as volunteer usher, then moved to section 125/126 and became a supervisor, and finally was moved to the tunnel and made a top supervisor.
“I love the tunnel, to see the players come in, the band come in, the visiting teams, press conferences,” she said. “I’m there, I’m down by the field, and I have to pinch myself to say, ‘This is real, Shirley.'”
Ushers may come from various backgrounds and places all over the country, but they all share one thing in common — their love for Notre Dame.
“I love my job, just like all the ushers — every one of them will tell you [that].” Gagnon said. “I loved [Notre Dame] from day one as a student when I came here 48 years ago, and my feelings haven’t changed in 48 years.”
Cox recently broke her leg. She said she’s like a football player — “out for the season.”
The broken leg, however, does not mean her time as an usher is over.
“I’m going to be one of the usher statues — I’m going to be there a long, long time. I just love it too much,” Cox said. “I’m going to do it until I can’t do it anymore.”
Scheibelhut shared similar sentiments. For him, 57 years as an usher simply isn’t long enough.
“I figure I have another five, six years — as long as my legs hold out, I’m going to keep coming,” he said.