Remembering Alan Sondej, Class of ’74
Terrence Rogers | Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the website of Notre Dame Magazine on March 18. The Observer will run this piece in a two part series, the second part to run tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 6.
I was in my early 30s in 1989, tending to my latest career move, when my brother James, ND ’69, passed on the news that Alan Sondej had died. He’d read about it in Notre Dame Magazine, and he called me at home on a Sunday night and told me what he knew, providing an answer to a question we had posed just two weeks before, when our brother Casey had flown in from Hawaii to attend his high school reunion. Had he seen Alan?
No, Casey had not, and no one at the reunion had known much about Alan. We had speculated on where he might be. It was interesting to do so, because Alan was such a unique individual, forever a member of our family Hall of Fame. I was certain he was somewhere far away, doing what many of us would never consider doing as we play out our lives in the free-market world of ambition, advancement and vain acquisition. He was probably doing good for people – just that, nothing more, nothing less.
Alan Sondej was a sociology major who graduated in 1974 and stuck around campus for a few years thereafter. Almost everyone who attended Notre Dame in the 1970s would remember him as “the big guy who collected money for the hungry outside the dining hall.”
So when James told me about Alan’s death, and how he had died, a sickening feeling came over me, a feeling much worse than just sadness. And it’s always been curious to me that I had such a feeling, for I could not count myself amongst Alan’s closest friends.
I first met Alan at the age of 10, when Casey and Alan attended a private military high school in Manhattan. Alan was already big, even as a freshman in high school. He was strong, played football and was about as muscular as anyone I’d ever seen. Casey told me stories of Alan’s feats as a weightlifter. He looked ferocious to a 10-year-old boy, but it didn’t take long to see that this was not what he was like inside. In fact, it wasn’t long after Alan started coming around our house that Casey told me he’d quit football because he was afraid he was going to hurt someone.
Alan came to our house a lot over the next four years. He was always quiet and polite. When they went separate ways for college – Casey to West Point, Alan to Notre Dame – I figured we’d remember Alan as that unique guy who wouldn’t play football because he was afraid he’d hurt someone.
But Alan stayed present in our minds for reasons much more important than that. Casey kept us up with his exploits. We knew he was studying and not playing football or driving a car – he had never gotten a driver’s license – and he didn’t seem to be doing anything distinguished beyond that, as far as we could see. Eventually, though, Casey learned that Alan had stayed at Notre Dame after graduation, collecting money for the hungry. I remember wondering, why is he doing this? Why isn’t he getting a job and worrying about making money like everyone else?Clearly he had taken a benevolent stand, but I had to admit I didn’t know him at all. And I wished that I did, so I could get some answers.
After high school, I spent three years at West Point before transferring to Notre Dame in 1977. I soon ran into Alan, still at Notre Dame where he’d been for almost eight years now, still collecting money for the hungry. My friends had told me how he would stand outside one of the dining halls with a milk jug and solicit donations. Everyone seemed to know who he was. A smile would come over people’s faces when I asked about him. He evoked some kind of reaction, but then no one could say that they really knew him. It was as if they had wondered the same things about Alan that I had and had never figured it out, either.
One winter night I went to Corby’s and saw him standing at the bar. I recognized him immediately and approached him, re-introducing myself. I asked if he wanted a beer, but he said he wasn’t drinking, that he just liked to be out and talking to people. We had a long conversation about Casey, and why I’d left West Point and come to Notre Dame, and why he was still at Notre Dame so long after he’d graduated. I asked him about his notoriety. And he told me yes, he was still collecting money from time to time, but he was also speaking on campus about world hunger after he had traveled overseas and seen the problem firsthand.
At first, his goal had simply been to collect as much money as he could – about $25,000 thus far. Then Fr. Hesburgh became aware of him and opened Alan’s eyes to how he could make a much bigger impact. Fr. Hesburgh sent him to places like Bangladesh and Guatemala to help hunger relief efforts and to bring home the lessons of what he saw to solicit larger donations from larger groups. He had begun an internship at the Overseas Development Council in Washington, D.C., enabling him to travel the U.S. to speak on world hunger. He was shifting from one way of addressing the problem to another, much bigger way.
It struck me that night how easily he could warm up to someone he hadn’t seen in so long. He seemed as interested in what I was doing as I was in him, though he was clearly the unique one, and still an enigma to me.
To be continued.
Terrence Rogers is a member of the Class of 1979 B.A., ’79 B.S., ‘and 11 LL.M. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.