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Zahm rector issues sudden resignation

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Monday, September 16, 2013

After Zahm House rector Scott Opperman resigned Thursday night, confused and concerned residents spent the weekend learning more about the situation and remembering the leadership Opperman provided during his one year and three week term.
Associate vice president for Residential Life Heather Rakoczy Russell confirmed Opperman’s departure and said Fr. Tom Doyle will serve as Zahm’s rector “while an active search for a permanent rector is underway.”
Opperman replaced former rector Corry Colonna in the fall of 2012.
Zahm House resident assistant Connor McCurrie said from the beginning, Opperman emphasized the importance of creating a welcoming community.
“[Within] the first week he was here, he changed everything from a hall to a house,” McCurrie said. “He continued that approach throughout his time here and really made sure we knew this that this was our dorm, that it was going in the direction we wanted it to and that we were a community first and foremost.”
The hall staff members were the first notified about Opperman’s resignation when they were called to the Main Building for a meeting late Thursday night, McCurrie said.
Junior Sam Hyder said his first reaction was disbelief, though a House meeting called Friday partially clarified his confusion.
“Scott was a big part of Zahm; he loved Zahm and everybody loved him,” Hyder said. “On Friday, everybody met and they brought in representatives from  [the Office of] Community Standards and [the Office of] Student Affairs to explain the situation.”
“As they were explaining it, we still weren’t getting a lot of answers from them. Part of that was because Scott preferred to keep the reasons for his resignation out of the public eye, but it kind of left all of us confused.”
Hyder experienced his first year in Zahm with former rector Corry Colonna and his second with Opperman, and he said Opperman brought a change in leadership style.
“My freshman year, the rector wasn’t really an influential part of the community,” he said. “He wasn’t a bad rector; he just didn’t fight for us like Scott did. We could really tell that Scott had our best interests at heart.”
Opperman’s dedication to the hall and its residents was obvious, Hyder said.
“The biggest strength he had was that he put Zahm first and that he cared for the men in Zahm and the overall community of Zahm,” he said. “At times, he acted as an intermediary between the administration and Zahm, but the bottom line was that we knew he would fight for us … and that he would give his all to this community in every way that he could.”
Freshman Norbert Kuc said he already had a sense of this bond between Opperman and the residents after only three weeks living in the hall.
“I only knew Scott for about three weeks, but I saw him as like a father figure to us. I’m sure the upperclassmen will vouch for me when I say that,” Kuc said. “There were some upperclassmen here who would call him ‘Dad.’ He always had his door open, so if anyone had a problem, he was like your dad away from home, basically.”
“If any of us had something going on, we’d be down there to talk to him in a heartbeat. He really felt approachable, and it seemed like he wasn’t as much of a ‘rector’ as he was someone from your family who cares about you and was on your side.”
From his perspective as a member of the hall staff, McCurrie said the community will miss Opperman, although interim rector Fr. Tom Doyle “will keep moving us forward.”
“Clearly, we’re all a little bit sad that Scott is gone,” McCurrie said. “He was great for the community … and we hope that he’s doing well now.
“[Scott] was very personable and very pastoral in his approach. He was a huge help to many of the guys here, and he was everybody’s good friend. I think he did a great job of balancing our dorm traditions with the University policy … and he really helped us solidify our community while he was here.”
McCurrie said residents wore Zahm apparel throughout the weekend to show support for Opperman, and more than 100 people went to the Grotto on Thursday night after hearing the news.
“We have not had any communication with Scott, but we know he has received hundreds of texts and emails from people in the dorm making sure he’s okay and that he knows he’s in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
Hyder and Kuc both said Zahm’s annual “Hesburgh Challenge,” an event first organized by Opperman, was one of the former rector’s greatest contributions.
“[Opperman] wanted to do something last year to honor [University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore] Hesburgh for Hesburgh’s 95th birthday and Zahm’s 75th anniversary, so he organized this challenge to build community and fight for better camaraderie,” Hyder said.
The second iteration of the Hesburgh Challenge took place the first weekend in September this year, during which the dorm decided to partner with an elementary school in Haiti to raise money and build a lasting relationship, Kuc said.
The sense of a “community within a community” that Opperman created helped Kuc become comfortable with the transition to college in his first weeks here, Kuc said.
“He said that all of Notre Dame is your home, but Zahm is specifically your little area of this broader place,” Kuc said. “Even if you don’t feel comfortable going to the advisors or anyone else who is supposed to act as a family figure for you, you can always go to the other guys here at the dorm for support.
“He would always say ‘watch out for your brothers.’ We were all expected to watch each other’s backs because we’re all in this together. That was a big thing for him, that you can’t leave your brother behind.”
Doyle will serve as interim rector effective immediately until a replacement is found. Doyle served as the University’s vice president for student affairs from 2010 to 2012 and is a fellow with Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives.