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Notre Dame community remembers life of Michael Hemler

| Monday, February 26, 2018

“I think he’s probably — no, not probably — the single most impactful person that I’ve met at Notre Dame.”

Professor Michael Hemler went above and beyond for his students, senior Trent McKinnon said, constantly ensuring he could offer his time to anyone who needed it during his 26 years as a finance professor in the Mendoza College of Business. Professor Hemler died unexpectedly Feb. 14 at the age of 64 due to natural causes.

For students like McKinnon, Professor Hemler’s commitment to those he taught was profoundly impactful. In fact, McKinnon says his time as Professor Hemler’s teaching assistant (TA) has altered his career path.

“He kind of changed the course of my life,” McKinnon said. “Now I’m going to go to graduate school to do a Ph.D. in finance because, you know, basically because of him. … I’m appreciative for everything that he gave me and everyone else.”

The commitment Professor Hemler showed to his students during his time at the University was unmatched by others, Rick Mendenhall, the William and Cassie Daley professor of finance and chair of the finance department, said.

“There’s a little common area on the third floor of Mendoza that’s just outside the faculty-staff lounge, and Mike could often be seen out there at a table talking to one or more of his students — just working through problems with them, talking to them about the course material,” Mendenhall said. “And on his syllabus — probably all of them, but the ones I remember, he says, ‘Please feel free to stop by anytime.’ And most of us don’t do that; most of us would rather have appointments, and so that was just the kind of teacher that Mike was. He was always available for his students.”

One of the students Professor Hemler would stop to help was senior Brenna Moxley, who said Professor Hemler often extended his office hours to accommodate her, despite his heavy workload. Editor’s note: Moxley is a former sports writer for The Observer.

“Whenever I would work on my finance homework he was almost always there because he had so many classes and he also taught graduate students,” Moxley said. “ … He would stop by my table and see if I was getting it. He would say, ‘Do you have any questions for me? I just want to check up on you.’ Just the fact that he wouldn’t walk by me if I was working on my homework, he always wanted to see if I understood it.”

This attention gave Moxley the confidence she needed to continue with Professor Hemler’s introduction to finance class, she said.

“I ended up doing poorly on my second exam of the semester,” she said. “It was right before the drop date, and so I ran into his office hours saying I think I needed to drop the course and that I would try again next semester. And he was so nice to me and just said that I didn’t need to do that, and I wasn’t going to fail his class and that he would work with me whenever I needed it so that I could earn my [business economics] minor.”

Professor Hemler’s patience with his students was evident during every class, senior Owen Fitzgerald said.

“He wanted to make sure everyone got it,” he said. “And another thing that I think made him different from almost any other teacher I’ve had is he would cold call people, which a lot of professors do — but he would give each student the opportunity to pass that cold call onto someone else, so that they wouldn’t be, I guess, out on a limb by themselves.”

Professor Hemler’s willingness to help others extended beyond his students, Mendenhall said, as Professor Hemler took on anything that was asked of him, even if most faculty members did not consider the job desirable.

“When I asked Mike if he would sit on a committee, [he would say] ‘Absolutely,’ and he’d ask questions about, ‘Okay, what’s the committee’s charge? Where do we go from here? What’s my role going to be?’” Mendenhall said. “Only questions that were explanatory, questions that he needed to have answers to do his job properly. … He never once complained about anything that I was asking him to do at the moment; he never once complained to me afterwards that something was too hard or maybe not what he should be doing, maybe something that someone else should be doing.”

Executive vice president John Affleck-Graves, who served as the Department of Finance chair from 1997 to 2000, said Professor Hemler’s selfless nature made him a valuable member of the department.

“Mike was a wonderful colleague and a personal friend,” Affleck-Graves said. “He was both an outstanding teacher and a mentor to younger faculty in the Department of Finance. I, along with all in the department, will miss him dearly.”

Professor Hemler’s selflessness was also evident in his heavy courseload, Mendenhall said.

“Mike taught more courses than the typical professor,” he said. “Mike was not as research-active as some of the faculty, and because of that, he felt he could teach more, he could take on more classes.”

Fitzgerald said Professor Hemler was able to teach so many classes due to his ability to adjust his teaching style to fit any class level, including non-business majors.

“He’d make it very approachable — even though he’s got his Ph.D. and however many years of experience of teaching the highest level of finance,” Fitzgerald said. “He came down to teach intro to kids who he knows probably aren’t going to take many finance classes afterwards because it was that important to him.”

Senior Emily Vincent said she appreciated the fact that Professor Hemler imparted valuable life skills to all of his students.

“It didn’t matter that for him it was comparatively simple concepts but for us, for specifically students not in the College of Business, he was always very patient in making sure we understood exactly how the principles were being applied to the problems and how to work through problems we hadn’t seen before,” Vincent said.

Fitzgerald said there were “multiple times” when Professor Hemler would take time out of his lesson plan to answer students’ questions and then continue to explain his answers after class.

“It didn’t make sense even after he took two or three minutes out of his planned class to try and explain it in the middle of the class,” Fitzgerald said. “So I’d spend two or three minutes afterwards and then he’d give a different perspective and say: ‘OK, what if you think about it this way?’ And all of a sudden it clicked. Or it didn’t, and then he gave me another one and that clicked.”

Going the extra mile, McKinnon said, didn’t just apply to the time spent with students for Professor Hemler.

“Of all the teachers that I had, he has done the most on top of the course stuff,” McKinnon said. “He would read, bring in and print articles almost every class about things related to finance then we would go over them for a little bit, then we would get back to the subject matter.”

This extra enthusiasm stemmed from Professor Hemler’s passion for his subject, Vincent said.

“It was clear that he was a professor that was really passionate about finance and not just about teaching students about how to pass the test but about showing them the real world application of finance and his experiences with that,” she said. “So he was really passionate about preparing us for the real world and what we could use finance for after we graduate and not just in the classroom.”

Professor Hemler’s passion for his work was not only clear from his teaching style, but also from the state of his office, senior Paul Sweeney said.

“His office, I thought, was exactly how I pictured an office to look like, I guess,” he said. “ … There’s just books and books and books, and papers and books and books and papers just piled up everywhere. And so that was nice. But it was always like, even though it was messy it was always welcoming, and he always wanted to sit down and talk. And after you were done with your question, or what you came for, he would always just want to get to know you.”

Getting to know his students was obviously a priority for Professor Hemler, Moxley said.

“He wasn’t just an average professor who didn’t know people’s names,” she said. “He learned everyone’s names and he really — it really meant a lot to me that even at a school as big as Notre Dame, with a professor who taught five classes at a time with probably 45 students in each class, that he would take the time out of his busy schedule to work with me, and I honestly couldn’t be more grateful to him for that.”

The gratitude those in the Mendoza College of Business and the Department of Finance feel toward Professor Hemler was made clear by his posthumous emeritus status, which Mendenhall said Roger Huang, Dean of the Mendoza College of Business and one of Professor Hemler’s close friends, suggested after Professor Hemler’s death.

“I think it’s a really appropriate title for Mike,” Mendenhall said. “ … I think it recognizes what Mike did for the department and the College. And it does that as well for his family.”

Students who knew Professor Hemler particularly well knew that his family was the most important thing in his life, Sweeney said.

If there was one thing besides his family and teaching that made Professor Hemler happiest, however, it was tennis, McKinnon said.

“He loved playing tennis. That was a big thing to him,” he said. “He loved his family a lot. When I would have lunch or dinner with him to talk about stuff, he would mention, ‘My wife’s doing this, my daughters are doing this.’ … So, family above all else, that was his number one. Number two was his job and his students. And then, number three maybe was tennis.”

The high priority Professor Hemler placed on making his students feel important to him, Moxley said, is going to be missed at Notre Dame.

“This is a huge loss for our University … and I think his shoes are [going to] be a really big [pair] to fill for students to come,” she said. “Because I know he made me feel the most important that any professor at Notre Dame has made me feel.”

Thanks to the effect Professor Hemler had on students such as McKinnon, though, his legacy as an educator will not be forgotten.

“I know that his legacy at least will live on through me because I’m going to be going to graduate school, and if I get my Ph.D., when it finally gets awarded, I’ll definitely be thinking of him,” McKinnon said. “In life, there’s only so many points when you diverge. When you’re on a set path and then some event happens and then it just shifts you away from it to a different one. I think that only happens so many times in life. [Professor] Hemler was definitely one of those points in my time. … He changed my life, for the better, I’d say.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a senior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, and currently serving as Editor-in-Chief. She is a former resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Contact Courtney