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A tale of two Notre Dame graduates

Gary Caruso | Friday, September 9, 2005

Despite my personal political leanings, my friends come from opposite ends of the political spectrum and include Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Libertarians. It just so happens that two of my closest Notre Dame alumni friends have been quite active since Hurricane Katrinia devastated the Gulf coast area. One is a Republican former special operations military veteran from Atlanta, the other a peace activist and liberal Democrat from Kansas.

These two Notre Dame graduates could not be more unlike each other except for a common undergraduate alma matter. My Atlanta friend brags of his covert past and at times still bullies his way through business dealings with veiled threats and an air of intimidation. My Kansas friend is a writer who can unceasingly spout off one joke after another and compares his anti Vietnam protest days with his current peace movement activities. Each has carved out a homestead on opposing mountaintops, yet each has put life on hold to assist homeless evacuees.

My Atlanta friend owns interests in several business ventures with many employees and has holdings of vast warehouses containing large equipment such as cranes, generators, air conditioners, portable lighting fixtures and a fleet of vehicles. Following Katrinia’s devastation, he quickly secured special transportation permits, including state police escorts, and led one of many convoys to the disaster area. He is equipped with satellite telephones and has set up his base of operations in Alabama.

Upon his arrival during his initial visit to the stricken area, he donated a generator and air conditioner to a hospital where trapped patients were sweltering in oppressive heat. On his second visit he was disappointed to learn that while the air conditioner was operational, the hospital wing’s temperature was registering at only 82 degrees. A nurse comforted him by saying, “It was a humid 102 degrees, and each day it gets slightly cooler. This is a big relief. Thank you.”

His other priority is to rescue a priest in Louisiana who was trapped with others in his church. My Atlanta friend did not say how he contacted the priest, but noted that the group was isolated and feared for their safety. The former commando explained that prior to his departure from Georgia, he bought several guns and ammunition to fortify the church if necessary. Jokingly he quipped that he now qualified as a one-man militia.

Half a continent away, my Kansas classmate took a different approach to the rescue efforts. Unlike the Atlanta alumnus who dove head first into the disaster area, the Kansas alumnus and a prominent local attorney organized their own mini-effort to assist evacuees who were headed for Oklahoma. They attained a truckload of bottled water through their local soft drink bottling plant owner and then organized a new goods contribution campaign from local businesses. They too led a convoy south.

My Kansas friends sidestepped both the Red Cross and emergency management agencies during their project. They reasoned that it was better to have a moving van full of goods sitting next to a shelter staging area for possible use rather than to have a shortage of goods. To their amazement, others had had the same bold strategy, and each truckload nicely complemented the overall effort to assist evacuees.

The relief shelters took on an atmosphere of shock, despair and hope. My friend described the dramatic effect the experience had on him as “conflicted.” On one side of the room someone was frantically trying to find a family member while on the other side another rejoiced at news that a relative had been found alive. The beaten, weary brows of adults contrasted to the energetic, bright eyes of their children. The dazed sorrow of some clashed with the euphoric joy of others.

Interestingly, both of my Notre Dame friends mentioned to me similar conversations with those affected by the hurricane’s devastation, that a common social thread ran through their experiences. At some point during their interactions with others, the fact became clear that they had graduated from Notre Dame. Both reported that several Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana State University football fans then pledged to cheer for Notre Dame. Both graduates, in their own way, replied, “It’s just something Notre Dame does.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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