Notre Dame ushers share experiences
Claire Kramer | Monday, April 9, 2018
“This is a counterfeit ticket,” Notre Dame usher supervisor Mack Smigielski deadpanned to a fan entering the Notre Dame baseball game. A look of confusion flitted across the fan’s face until Smigielski burst into laughter and handed her the ticket with an “enjoy the game.”
Clad in navy jackets with bright gold caps, the Notre Dame usher force, 850 strong, is a staple at countless university events from dorm dances to move-in weekend to sporting events. They’re tasked with crowd control, enforcing policy and providing a welcoming presence to visitors, students and fans, according to Jim Smith, program manager of crowd control in the Athletic department.
Smith, director of the usher program, said potential ushers often hear about the positions by word of mouth, and the most important criteria is a distinct disposition.
“A heart for service is the big thing,” he said. “On a day-to-day basis, our job is to help you guys get across the finish line so you can graduate and move on to the next step.”
Tom Smith, a fellow supervisor with Smigielski, emphasized the importance of ushers as the first line of how visitors encounter Notre Dame.
“I just think you have to present yourself in a manner that represents Notre Dame, and that’s not hard,” he said. “God, Country and Notre Dame, that’s what it’s all about.”
Some of those visitors are high-profile guests, but the ushers aren’t fazed. Smith worked for years in the media football parking lot on gameday.
“One of my claims to fame is that I shook hands with every Heisman trophy candidate that won a Heisman trophy here at Notre Dame before they passed,” he said. He added that while many asked why he never got an autograph from any guest, the mere action of knowing the person was enough for him.
Smigielski, who started out in traffic control, oversaw the parking lot near the former University Club. He said once, Former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh had parked in his reserved parking space in the lot that morning, and returned later in a different car, wanting to park in an additional space. Smigielski told the famed University president that he couldn’t park another car in the lot.
“Mack, you see that building over there?” Hesburgh asked.
“Yes, Father, I do,” he responded.
“It’s got my name on it,” Hesburgh replied.
“Well, Father, maybe you should park over there,” Smigielski responded.
Hesburgh got out of the car, laughed and said, “Good answer, but I’m still going to park here.” Smigielski had no choice but to let him.
Aside from the brushes with fame, the ushers spoke of the importance of making visitors feel welcome and never is this more true than Welcome Weekend, when first-years and their families make the drive up Notre Dame Avenue on a nerve-filled August morning. Smith said he has a routine with each car that drove to his area.
“I’d shake their hand and say ‘You’re going to start an experience here that you’re never going to forget,’ and I’d have the mother crying,” he said.
Four years after one of these encounters, Smith was working at a commencement event and a mother approached him.
“She said to me, ‘I want you to know, the first day on campus you made me cry,’” Smith said.
He offered an apology, but the woman assured him that none was necessary. Her son was now the president of his senior class.
“You never know what you present is going to do for and to the people that are coming to the University, so you really have to present yourself as best you can for that, and that’s all I ever try to do,” Smith said.
A common quality these men and women expressed was their passion for Our Lady’s University.
“I’m just a huge Notre Dame fan,” Smigielski said. “I swear if I cut myself I’d bleed blue.”
However, Smigielski, who has been an usher for nearly 40 years, said his fandom is nothing in comparison to some of the fans he’s been able to meet over the years. Some, he said, visit Notre Dame because it’s an item on their bucket list. He told the story of a West Virginia fan who wanted to see a Notre Dame football game before he died. Ten years ago, the man made it to South Bend and met Smigielski at the Friday pep rally. The next day, Smigielski saw him outside Notre Dame Stadium early in the morning.
“He was outside, petting the wall like you’d pet a dog, crying,” he said. “It was emotional for me, so I went to my boss and talked to him to see if I could just take him into the stadium and let him say his prayers.
“I took him down on the field and he asked if he could take a couple blades of grass, and stuck them into his great-granddaughter’s picture. He kissed the ground, got up absolutely bawling, gave me a hug and told me, ‘thank you so much.’”
The fan passed away two weeks after he visited Notre Dame.
“He told me, ‘My life is now complete,’” Smigielski said.
On another gameday, Smigielski was called to the upper deck of the stadium where a pregnant woman had gone into labor, but she refused to leave the game until she saw kickoff. He arranged for an ambulance and first-aid personnel to assist, and after the fingers circled and “Go, Irish” boomed across the stadium, she was transported to the hospital, where she gave birth about an hour later. Smigielski and his wife visited her that night.
“Fifteen years later, a young lady walked up to me,” he said. “‘I hear your name is Mack. My mother went into labor here.’ I said “Are you kidding me?’”
Both ushers said they had countless stories of the people they’ve met from all over the world.
“Being an usher as many years as I have, I could write a book, or at least a very large chapter,” Smigielski said.
“It’s not an Einstein thing at all, it’s not rocket science whatsoever,” he said. “It’s truly being you — conveying your smile and eye contact to the next person. That’s what we’re all about. If I can make you smile one time, I can do it twice.”
“There’s no way to explain how you feel,” Smith said. “It’s Notre Dame and we’re family, and that’s what it’s all about.”