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viewpoint

Remembering the sodas

| Thursday, September 20, 2018

It was 2005, I was a senior in high school, and the only thing in my life I was confident about was that I wanted to go to Notre Dame. Talking my college options through around the dinner table, my father made it clear that my first stop should be to visit Sr. Alice, who just so happened to be a member of the Board of Trustees of my future alma mater.

I was intimidated. My Catholic upbringing, with its respect for tradition, for authority and most importantly for those committed to a life of faith, didn’t make it much easier. I found a parking space at the College of New Rochelle, where she lived. After admiring the stately, gothic architecture at the center of campus, I eventually found the unassuming entrance to the sisters’ residence. I buzzed the intercom. “I’m here for Sr. Alice? Gallin?” I sputtered. “I’m her, uh, nephew, great nephew, whatever?” The lock clicked, and in I went.

Sr. Alice was right there to meet me. Spry. A wry glint in her eye. A smile. “Come on up, come on up.” On the way, walking through the lobby, she gestured to the common spaces, and talked about the recent renovation. Clearly she was proud of her community, and the way they treated each other.

We entered the apartment — the apartment of a woman who had exactly what she needed. She asked me if I wanted something to drink: “I have Coke and Sprite, which would you like?” “Oh, either’s fine, whichever you have more of.” “Oh, I only have one of each — I bought them from the vending machine. I didn’t know which you’d prefer.”

Sr. Alice Gallin was a woman with an incredible biography. Legend has it, she was a spy. Another legend tells us that she once turned down a ride on Air Force One — she already had travel arrangements with her friends, you see, and she wouldn’t want to be rude. She wrote books and she was an incredible educator, and throughout, her dedication to the Church’s role in teaching defined her scholarship and her resume. She served as the director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and was instrumental in helping to draft and implement “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.” She later wrote the go-to book on American Catholic higher education. It’s easy to look up. Its title is “American Catholic Higher Education” — Sr. Alice was never one to mince words. And she did all this while living in community with the sisters that she had chosen, and that she loved.

This was the Sr. Alice we all knew. She and I would celebrate the Notre Dame wins at Thanksgiving, and lament their late-season shortcomings at Christmas. Invariably, our conversations would turn to literature, to history, to what it was like to learn new languages. Sr. Alice had seen it all, and, despite being three steps ahead of all of us, she’d park right there on the sofa and listen. She was a force of nature. She was permanent. Inexorable. Small, but mighty. Installed on that couch, she had a gravity.

But what I remember most is the sodas. The Coke and the Sprite. She had no need for them — I can’t imagine she ever drank that Coke I left after choosing the Sprite. But at her core she was the kind of person who loved and cared enough not just to welcome anyone and everyone, but to ensure that she could always meet each of those people in her life exactly where they were.

She was a giant. As someone who has chosen to pursue a life of studying and teaching, I will always think of her scholarship and academic resume as an inspiration. Whenever I meet with my students, I think of Alice. As an educator, she’d expect me to hold them to the same high standards that she held me to in that conversation we had 13 years ago, when she challenged me on why I wanted to go to Notre Dame, and whether I thought I had what it took to get in.

But intellectualism only gets you so far. It was her deep intuition, her always-thoughtful-but-never-calculating way of caring for each and every person around her, that will remain with me, inside and out of the classroom. How effortlessly thoughtful, how humbly prepared she was to welcome me. To remind me that I mattered. To care.

May I always be as effortlessly thoughtful as Sr. Alice. May we all.

Sr. Alice Gallin, OSU, PhD was born on December 30th, 1921 in New York. She earned her BA from The College of New Rochelle 1942 before joining the Ursuline Order in 1946. She earned her PhD from Catholic University in 1955, and went on to at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities from 1976-92, becoming its executive director. She was named a trustee of Notre Dame in 1986. Her research and teaching focused on the history of Catholic higher education, and she provided support to ND during their transition to a lay board of governance. She passed away on September 13th. She was 97.

Kevin Gallin

B.A. ‘10, M.A. ‘15

Grand-nephew of Sr. Alice

Sept. 19

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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