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The end of an era

| Thursday, April 14, 2016

With a smile on her face, I recently saw a bright young woman go straight to Professor David Solomon and hug him. I’ve seen this happen with many of Professor Solomon’s former students. They return to campus and light up when they see him, almost as if they are seeing their father after a long absence.

When I entered Notre Dame in the fall of 2009, not much time passed before I sat in his office with a couple of other freshmen and had a conversation about how we wanted to write tracts about what it means to be a Catholic university. I think starry-eyed students like us helped Professor Solomon to be ever-creative in his efforts to promote Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, from founding the Center for Ethics and Culture to beginning the Fund to Protect Human Life. I wonder if students have been doing this since he joined Notre Dame’s philosophy faculty in 1968.

There’s an instant affinity when I discover a Notre Dame graduate who took Professor Solomon’s Morality and Modernity class. The narrative survey course, which focuses on Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue,” has created a common connection — a common core, if you will — among generations of Notre Dame grads interested in responding to the modern world from within the Catholic intellectual tradition. It pursues an answer to the interminable moral arguments that abound on and off campus and what can be done about them. The class is precisely the kind of course worthy of a fixed place in a core curriculum. It’s a class I turn back to, either explicitly or implicitly, in nearly every intellectual and practical endeavor. It provides a framework for thinking about countless problems.

In addition to teaching, Professor Solomon occasionally found himself involved in campus controversies. He played an important role in Notre Dame’s 2009 “alternative commencement.” He has pushed for a University with a stronger commitment to the protection of human life in its most vulnerable stages. Though not Catholic himself, for decades he has worked for a Notre Dame that robustly lives out its evangelical and apostolic mission.

I know a lot of men like Professor Solomon: Christians who have spent their careers in what seems like a losing battle for the soul of great Christian institutions. But Professor Solomon, as I have known him, is unique among these fighters in important ways: though he has perhaps lost allies and made some enemies in his work, and though he may have been sad and tired at times, I have never known him as a man who works with bitterness.

A few years ago, when faced with the possibility of losing one of his great projects, he spoke in McKenna Hall to a crowd of philosophers, theologians, professors, students and friends about how flowers are made to bloom for a time. It was a beautiful moment. With admirable detachment towards earthly endeavors, he reminded many of us that the end of an era doesn’t mean the demise of the good that has been done. And as he stood before a crowd of people who had worked beside him, he reminded me that in the end, our greatest comforts and our greatest accomplishments are the friendships we have forged in our embattled years. Though many things can be taken from us by the powers that be, not even death can destroy the mutual affection and good will shared between friends.

Perhaps this is why I think of Dr. Solomon as a man who smiles and laughs amid his teaching. He’s a man who bought my friends and me drinks after class so we could continue conversations about the ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas. He’s a man who welcomed countless students into his office and offered a listening ear, fatherly counsel and, occasionally, money from the Center for Ethics and Culture for intellectual projects. He welcomed students into his home for class dinners and chided us if we hadn’t read Jane Austen.

Professor Solomon’s retirement at the end of the semester will certainly leave an empty space in the Notre Dame that many of us have known and loved. But the space left is not a scorched Earth. It’s a fertile ground, with deep roots and flowers spread across the country, in various graduate programs, in the hundreds of students who travel to Washington every January, in professionals committed to integrated ethical practice, and in viewpoint columns that arise from late afternoon conversations at Legends.

Thanks for everything, Professor. I’ll be reading “Pride and Prejudice” this summer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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