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Honoring the ‘angels’ of Notre Dame

Caruso, Gary | Friday, October 7, 2005

According to legend, angels of varying shapes and sizes roam the earth. Inconspicuously walking among us, they are known only by those to whom they have bestowed good deeds. Notre Dame is no stranger to the angel brigade. One such soul, Rev. Robert Griffin, C.S.C., has been gone now for a half-dozen years but would have celebrated his 80th birthday this week. Unfortunately, unless a scholarship or other memorial is established, few may remember his grace and compassion as time slithers along.

Occasionally we stare squarely into the eyes of angels like “Fr. Griff” but fail to recognize them until they have vanished. A typical Notre Dame student will, in just four years, encounter many who are impressive not so much for Catholicism as for their spirituality. When this writer studied at Notre Dame during the waning years of the Vietnam War, that era’s angels included Fr. Griff, Frank O’Malley, Dean Waddick, Lenny Sommer, Thomas Stritch and Rev. A. B. Brennen to name but a few.

These men touched student lives in divergent ways. For example, retired speech and drama professor of thirty-three years and Notre Dame Debate Coach, Lenny Sommer, led students to ten national championships in forensics, persuasion and debate competition. He described his secret for success as “hard work, a belief in Notre Dame, and an occasional hopelessly dry martini.” His testimonials, mere memories of his students, are much like the ghosts of Scrooge’s youth at boarding school. But oh, what wonderful memories.

English professor Frank O’Malley and American Studies professor Tom Stritch were the last of the University’s mid-20th Century “bachelor dons,” faculty who lived in the residence halls and mentored students. Coincidentally, both campus giants resided in Lyons Hall where they regularly spoke to students well beyond the midnight hour. They taught students how to discover the meaning of life during those most sacred of nocturnal educational experiences. Both lived a vigorous existence, attempting to fuse the ideal with the real. Through their own scholarly style, each touched students in valuable ways.

O’Malley fought personal demons arising from a gin bottle, but eloquently spoke of the blood in the bricks on campus, of understanding the bread of live and of our everyday trials while following the footsteps of Christ. Stritch almost single-handedly created the American Studies Department that melded American literature, politics, communications and history at a time when our nation’s culture was still exploding with antiwar fervor in the post-assassination 1960s. Never again will “bachelor dons” live as perpetual students within the confines of collegiate dormitories. Their testimonials in today’s digital existence are reduced to finding the meaning of life through a Google search.

For those who never had an Internet search engine while attending Notre Dame, they had Fr. Griffin. Griff comforted the lonely, the hurt, the losers, the misfits and the suicidal. He was a campus misfit who always gave a hug to visitors, and his immense size earned him the name “El Gorgo,” the large one. Sitting all night in Keenan Hall on a large reclining chair just beyond his open door, Griff was the sponge who soaked up the heartbreak, frustration and uncertainty of Notre Dame teenagers who were homesick or upperclassmen who were troubled.

Working the spiritual graveyard shift each evening, Griffin seldom rose before noon. However, whenever he strolled across campus at midday, small armies of students “just happened to be going the same way.” It was not until he adopted his cocker spaniel, Darby O’Gill, against University regulations, that some students felt at ease enough to use the dog to seek his guidance.

Griff even managed to open the first 24-hour campus lounge in the basement of the La Fortune Student Center. Named after his dog, Darby’s Place accommodated mass gatherings. Yet Fr. Griffin could exude a personal one-on-one spiritual warmth students lacked elsewhere on campus or within their families.

Perhaps someone today on campus has replaced Griff as the soother of souls, but none can attract legions who tag along while crossing the quads. Allowing his memory to fade as generations pass is not an option for many who loved Griff, whose lives were changed or saved through his unselfish and giving nature. Some desire the creation of a scholarship fund but lack an ability to coordinate the effort.

It was suggested that an adequate scholarship requires a hundred friends contributing $1,000 each for a University fund in Griffin’s name. This writer would be happy to coordinate such alumni interest with the University financial aid office. As one who personally felt Griff’s charity and compassion, that is the least that can be done to remember this, or any of the Notre Dame ‘angels.’

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.