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Bon voyage senior class

Gary Caruso | Monday, May 3, 2010

With classes winding down and examinations looming, only one performance-based
essay question really remains as the final hurdle for seniors to pass before graduating
from the university’s cocoon and venturing into the realm of the real world. The topic
may not rival that quintessential question that asks for the meaning of life, but it can
steer each graduate to a happy and healthy lifetime. It simply asks, “Who are you?”
Drawing on personal experiences, each of us evolves as days fall from our calendars.
For me, as a Notre Dame freshman forty years ago today, I faced the possibility of dying
in Vietnam before I reached my twenty-third birthday. Many of my classmates at the
time knew another Notre Dame student who had fallen in the jungles abroad. We were
most pointedly reminded by the hundreds of white crosses planted on the South Quad
bearing the names of our lost friends. Those events and that atmosphere converted me
from a flag-waving “kill the Commies” war supporter my first day on campus to an anti-
war protester on the last day of April in 1970.
Today is the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s announcement that
American forces had expanded operations by crossing into Cambodia. It was also
the birth of the Notre Dame student strike that halted most classes while nearly 5,000
students gathered at Stepan Center for discourse and demonstrations. In response,
University President Theodore Hesburgh devised a method for each student to follow
his (it was an all-male student body at the time) conscience. Students could choose
to freeze their grades, elect a pass/fail grade, continue to attend classes, or in rare
cases drop a course. By selecting several pass/fail options, my personal GPA rose
substantially that semester.
Only one final faded remnant of that day still exists on campus. The top of a spray-
painted “S” of the word “Strike” barely shows on the west facing wall on the Huddle’s
south door wing. The mark begins on the 25th row up from the ground, three full bricks
in from the northwest corner and curves down to the 20th row. Invisible while standing
directly in front of the wall, it is only displays from a 45 degree angle away from the
While my turbulent days of 40 years ago on campus or my father’s deadly days nearly
70 years ago while fighting in World War II may never touch the souls of this year’s
senior class, time and experience will nonetheless remold their outlooks on life. Most
will learn that usually events and circumstances are not as bad, nor as good as they
originally may seem. It behooves us to calmly evaluate our circumstances before blindly
reacting to them. Those who do are those who graciously survive life’s adjustments.
Publicly, this nation’s successful presidents have been those who are optimistic and
inspire a majority of support regardless of policy differences. Privately, our local heroes
are those unselfish souls who give the best from their hearts regardless of their modest
means or difficult surroundings.
How many grandmothers, teachers, religious, volunteers or social workers exist in
near poverty but shower others with generosity deserving of royalty? My grandmother
was certainly the type who could give away as much homemade baked Italian bread
to drifters — complete strangers who randomly knocked on her door — during the
Great Depression as she did to her neighbors and family decades later during robust
economic times. Her pleasant personality, even while suffering from complications of
diabetes that crippled and blinded her, brought cheer to those whom she encountered.
Today in our anonymous digital age, any knucklehead can hide behind obscurity while
meanly slandering or outright lying online. Time and again bloggers write “get a life” to
discredit an opinion and trivialize an opposing idea. While this writer always personally
answers all e-mail responses to this column, honest and intellectual volleys of ideas or
opinions is on the wane. That is the pitfall facing each graduating senior’s future.
Digital cowards innately prefer to avoid a true debate by masking their identities. They
cower behind login names that ridicule others so that they can nastily disparage those
who hold opposing views. For example, two weeks ago in the comments section of
this newspaper, one cowardly reader belittled this column’s vocabulary as elitist. As
a result, how can this columnist explain learning words like, “abhorrent, plethora and
enigma” in 1994 while watching Ryan Seacrest host the children’s show, Gladiator
Each graduating senior will eventually recognize the life lesson of honestly knowing
thyself. My best advice on how to walk that path is to offer a smile or humorous
comment to strangers you encounter. Lately, I routinely blame “that damn groundhog”
when with others in bad weather. Such antidotes can solicit a remark or just a
laugh that may brighten what for others may be an unusually miserable day.
Four decades ago, I only knew how to react rather than cope. Like many of
my classmates, I did not seek to know myself. Since then, death, despair and
disappointments forced me to change my outlook. I doubt that I could have arrived any
earlier without consciously seeking such an understanding. The best train for graduating
seniors to ride may differ with each individual, but traveling with humor in your suitcase
will make the trek worth while. Best wishes and safe journeys.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was
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.