observer 50th anniversary
‘How would The New York Times cover parietals?’: A collection of letters from Observer alumni
The Observer | Thursday, November 3, 2016
My best memory of The Observer coincides with the most challenging story that ever came up in my four years. The night we learned that University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh had died was the night I was supposed to turn the editor-in-chief office over to Greg Hadley (’16), and the overnight scramble to put out the “In Memoriam” issue was the greatest example of teamwork and cooperation that I’ve ever been a part of.
The logistic challenges were significant, but the greatest difficulty was trying to figure out how much a newspaper can do when faced with the legacy of a man whose story and impact are so much bigger than anything that could ever be represented in print. During that weekend at the end of February 2015, the whole staff worked around the clock, drawing on the support of alumni and external mentors while also finding ways to dig into the stories of the campus community. We wanted to share the legacy Fr. Hesburgh left with our peers while also capturing the live dynamic of the memorial events on campus for readers who couldn’t be there in person to celebrate his life with us. We did as much as we could, and though it never felt like enough, the teamwork and shared passion was as significant a tribute to him as the actual papers we put out that week.
Every time I see my copies of those special issues, I remember not only the incredible man they honor, but also the extraordinary way that the Observer staff members combined their energy, talent and love for Notre Dame to honor Fr. Hesburgh. We worked to produce an issue that would reflect the depth of appreciation Notre Dame had for its former president, even if that appreciation could never be fully contained on the printed page.
That weekend was the first time I truly understood the limits of journalism and all of the things that can never be completely represented through the process of transcribing, editing, writing and printing the paper, all on deadline. However, I also learned exactly what newspapers can do — create concrete, material reminders for people that those intangible elements affect us all. Those stories brought readers, writers, students and alumni together in shared appreciation of a person who shaped the University that links us. In the past 50 years — and in the 50 yet to come — The Observer has offered the Notre Dame community a way to share the stories that matter to us, which in turn will shape the community we go on to become.
Ann Marie Jakubowski
Notre Dame class of 2015
As I went from doe-eyed freshman to something vaguely more aware, I realized that journalism was my calling. Notre Dame had no journalism program then, so The Observer became my journalism program. During my years at the paper, I worked nearly every job and learned much. We were a bunch of 20-year-olds sitting around at editorial board meetings trying to figure out how to cover thorny issues on campus and in our youthful naiveté saying things like: “How would The New York Times cover parietals?”
The Observer was also a place of great passion. Some of my most creatively fulfilling moments came while frantically writing headlines and designing pages ahead of a 5 a.m. printer deadline. It was also a place of disappointment. While driving to pick up kegs (at 6 a.m.!) for an Observer tailgater in 1981 (which always drew lots of alums), we said bleary eyed: “Well, in the future, someone else will be going to get the kegs and we’ll be the ones drinking from the tap … ”
And my experience at the paper did pay off. I got my first job after graduating because of The Observer. A crusty editor out of central casting (at a small Chicago magazine dedicated to investigating the cases of the falsely convicted on death row in Illinois) hired me because he liked a column I wrote titled “Beware of the Boneheads.”
But finally, even as I can trace my career as a writer now back to The Observer, I think the greatest contribution it made to my life is in the many lifelong friends I made during the sweaty days and nights working on the top floor of La Fortune (no A/C in September, too much steam heat in winter). John McGrath, Maura Murphy, Paul McGinn, Margaret Fosmoe and Mark Rust are just a few of the Observerites that continue to enrich my life every day.
Ryan Ver Berkmoes
Note Dame class of 1983
I will forever be thankful to The Observer for permitting me to discover and hone my cartooning craft. It allowed me to create a bond with an audience that could never be duplicated. I created the cartoon strip “Molarity.” By the end of my freshman year, it was in the paper daily and remained there until my graduation. And while the strip became the most popular feature of the paper in those days, the most unique thing was the intimate bond I had with my audience. I could sit anonymously in the dining halls at lunch and listen to the reaction to the cartoon. I knew when I hit and I knew when I missed.
Even today, when I meet Domers I did not know back at school, they tell me of their fondness for “Molarity” and how the strip fully expressed the joys and frustrations of being at Notre Dame. The strip has had amazing success, but only within the square mile that is Du Lac. Back in the ‘80s it spawned 14,000 books sold in the bookstore. “Molarity” continues today with both new and classic cartoons appearing on Notre Dame Magazine’s website. And there is a new book with all 581 original cartoons that has respectable sales for a book whose contents reach back almost 40 years. Today’s social media has almost duplicated that intimate relationship built in the dining halls. Once again I am getting instant feedback on my new “Molarity” cartoons. I have been able to rekindle and start friendships based mostly on our common memory of the strip.
While I did not match that cartooning success professionally, I have gotten in the mind and hearts of many Domers. That remains a cherished honor and privilege.
Notre Dame class of 1988
I would like to share a bit of history with you from the Observer’s infancy. In the fall of 1970 the Observer’s editor-in-chief quit and the paper was closed for a week. The Observer’s editors gathered one evening to decide what to do — elect a new editor or shut the paper down. Just as we were starting our deliberations, a person walked in who none of us save Guy DeSapio, previous Observer, editor-in-chief, recognized. Turns out the unknown person was the Observer’s first editor, Robert Sam Anson, who was on campus visiting with Fr. Ted Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s President. During the Vietnam War, Anson was a reporter and was captured in Cambodia by Communist forces. Hesburgh prevailed on the Vatican to press for Anson’s release, which apparently was done. Anson was on campus to thank Hesburgh.
Anson gave the assembled group of editors a pep talk, discussed what it was like when he and his colleagues founded the Observer, and urged us to elect a new editor and carry on, which we did. Very glad to see that 46 years later the Observer is alive and well.
Notre Dame class of 1972
Congratulations to The Observer on 50 years of independent student journalism. In 1985, we swarmed around a finicky computerized typesetter and layout boards until 5 a.m. Clanging heat on the top floor of LaFortune kept us company. We introduced innovative efforts to keep the financial operation solvent and transparent, and aimed to never publish an Associated Press article on the front or back page.
Not once, as editor, did I receive a call from a University administrator mandating content. Student journalism is constantly learning, constantly struggling and remains a fundamental and cherished aspect of higher education, especially at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame class of 1985
Late at night — and it was always late at night — as I stepped out of LaFortune to catch the return shuttle to Saint Mary’s, I made it a point to look up at the Golden Dome. Sometimes it was frosted over; sometimes it was glowing in cloud cover; sometimes it was gleaming like a movie set in spotlights. I first thought it was a static monument to college life, but that’s not right at all. The backdrop was forever in motion against it.
The Observer held all that college was, all I hoped it would be, all that never came to fruition. I sat on the floor of McCandless Hall dorm room as a visiting high school senior, poring over it like holy writ: There was a space to write columns. I could be a columnist before I even graduated. And I became a columnist. And, for about five minutes, the Saint Mary’s Accent editor — a job which exhausted and infuriated me, the first warning shot that all writers are not necessarily journalists. I went back to columning.
It was a lesson I forgot over and over again, this attempt to strike out from my column inches: The ranch hand. The tech writer. The NASA educator. The museum specialist. All jobs pulled on like dresses and thrown back over my head almost as quickly as they settled against my body. In some ways I’m still not listening to what The Observer was trying to teach me as 19 year old, when, at the tipping point of a new technological generation, we laid out the paper on computers but still didn’t think to put it all online. Although now a writer looking at 40, I still pull away and bounce back to that stunned freshman, who, in failed attempts to improve her appearance, submitted herself to tighter and tighter perms.
The Observer was the start of what everything I thought I would be and the end of it, too. The backdrop, it’s always moving — but some truths will always stand.
Mary Beth Ellis
SMC Accent Editor
Saint Mary’s class of 1997
Twenty years after I served as editor-in-chief of The Observer, I left the newspaper business and took a university job that requires me to interact daily with student journalists. Sometimes, they infuriate me. Often, they impress me. Always, I remember that they are students juggling a transformative full-time job and rigorous classes.
For fun, I remind each new crop of editors to look around the newsroom, because they might be toiling alongside a future spouse. They smile politely, almost dismissively, until I count all the Observer marriages — including my own.
Monica Yant Kinney
Notre Dame class of 1993
It was the year the world was supposed to implode, so we had a lot on our plate. To say nothing of 48-page Friday sections — plus the pullout — and all that ad business.
A lifetime of thanks to the 1999-2000 editorial board: Shannon Ryan, Dave Rogero and Laura Petelle; Tim Logan, Colleen Gaughen, Brian Kessler, Mike Vargas, Noreen Gillespie, Kevin Dalum, Bryan Lutz, Bret Huelat, Erik Kuskto, Tim Lane and Joe Mueller. And a special nod to Mike Revers, who defended our staff from Y2K and who, I might imagine, still keeps the computers churning in the wee hours; you, my friend, are missed.
This job taught me to trust my colleagues and to make them my friends. It may be the best job I’ll ever have.
Long live The Observer.
Notre Dame class of 2000
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.