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Fat weekend is upon us

Gary Caruso | Thursday, February 19, 2009

For many who regularly fall short of intended Lenten sacrifices, today begins a “Fat Weekend,” or a binge run-up to Ash Wednesday. Just as Christmas decorations appear earlier each year – sometimes uncharacteristically well before Halloween – similarly, Lenten lightweights try to compensate by beginning Fat Tuesday earlier. As a charter member of the lightweight legion, this year I prefer to approach Lent backwards, beginning with the calm of Easter Saturday.

Imagine that Easter was behind us, Lent has just begun, but Fat Tuesday is still more than six weeks away. Would our mental preparation and attempts to purge our weaknesses be less intense? It seems unlikely that a reverse timeline could spawn such a Mardi Gras atmosphere when Ash Wednesday eventually arrived. In fact, the process could become more introspective and less celebratory.

If Lent were to be reversed, today, at its conclusion, I would think of the Bengal Bouts. My reflections would naturally remind me of Father James L. Riehle, C.S.C., ’49, ’78 MSA, who passed away in October. Riehle’s iconic campus personality evolved while fighting as a boxer during his youth. Maybe his magic came from his seminary training, or maybe it was the fact that he entered the priesthood at the age of 43 after living a life in the real world. But Riehle’s uniquely masculine yet tender persona dominated his tenure as dean of students, as Pangborn Hall rector for a dozen years, as the Monogram Club’s executive director for two decades and as athletic chaplain presiding over the Notre Dame football team’s game-day mass for more than a quarter of a century.

Riehle successfully managed an impossible task while dean of students during the height of the Vietnam war from 1967 to 1973. He was the sheriff of Campus Mayberry – an insulated Catholic educational enclave whose residents knew too well roommates lost overseas. The harsh reality became starkly visual one day when someone planted more than 200 white crosses on the South Quad, each representing a lost Notre Dame graduate. In the end, a pair of stokes moved Riehle from a cane to a golf cart. Yet, the frail shadow of this man never lost his measured temperament, sense of justice nor his legendary whit.

Lent focuses us on death, hope and life. It teaches us that the good in our loved ones is never gone. So each winter bits of Fr. Riehle come back to those who shared a moment with him during the Bengal Bouts or at a Monogram Club function. When trekking back to campus for a football game, his old office in the Main Building conjures ghosts of times many of us were summoned for disciplinary reasons. On any evening at home, we whose lives were touched by Riehle can still thumb through a year book for a tangible snapshot of his image.

As dean of students, Riehle ruled autonomously in a time that University president emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh calls the student “revolution.” As president, Hesburgh established his famous 15-minute rule whereby disruptive students hindering another’s rights were given 15 minutes to meditate, then desist or face expulsion. Page 336 of the 1970 year book, “Dome,” includes a photograph of Riehle in the Main Building looking at his watch to time a warning to more than 100 students protesting against the CIA and Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, on campus to recruit students. Riehle expelled five students and suspended five others. Yet, all but one returned to earn a degree.

My favorite photograph of Riehle lives on page 280 of the 1976 “Dome.” It exhibits the human side of Riehle who, as Dean of Students, mingled with students and shared mutual respect. The photograph shows Riehle at the Senior Bar with his signature cigar in hand while grasping a plastic cup of beer and speaking with a student who held a beer as well. It reveals how Riehle lived a measured Sheriff Andy Taylor existence during the height of the Vietnam war’s upheaval years.

During Riehle’s tenure as dean, this columnist installed a ten-button telephone as a switchboard for rooms in a Lyons Hall wing. The phone company removed it and notified Riehle. He asked if it was stolen. Yes was the reply. “Well, the phone company took the phone and does not recommend anything, so don’t do it again,” Riehle ordered.

Lent is forgiving regardless of the approach or degree of sacrifice. For those who depend on Fat Weekend in preparation, Lent can actually be the best of times. Lent calls out Riehle’s oftentimes pronounced verdict and signature comment, “Don’t do that again.”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a

communications 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.