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Notre Dame honors ‘subway alumni’ during game weekend in New York

| Friday, November 16, 2018

When Notre Dame fans converge on New York City this weekend ahead of the Shamrock Series football game against Syracuse, a blue and gold illuminated Empire State Building will greet them Friday evening.

How did Notre Dame negotiate this display?

Paul Browne, vice president for public affairs and communications, asked.

“They did this at no cost to Notre Dame, but I guess my best explanation is I asked nicely,” he said.

Browne formerly worked as a public information officer at the New York City Police Department, and had seen the Empire State Building lit in various colors to celebrate holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah. Through his work at the police department, he had crossed paths with Tony Malkin, CEO of Empire State Realty Trust, which owns the Empire State Building.

“I wrote Tony a note, reminding him we had crossed paths when I was with the NYPD,” Browne said. “ … And I explained how the Shamrock Series worked — that we would take one of our home games and play it in an interesting place outside of South Bend and that this year we were doing it in New York.”

Browne hoped that illuminating the Empire State Building would both celebrate the fact that Notre Dame was visiting New York City, as well as recognize “subway alumni” without any official connection to Notre Dame.

“We were kind of honoring the ‘subway alumni’ which is those people, many of them located in New York, many of whom started following Notre Dame when they were immigrants and came into New York,” he said. “We kind of wanted to honor that tradition and thought what better way to do it? New York City is a city of immigrants, Notre Dame is a college that itself was founded by immigrants. … So, Tony eventually agreed. We also agreed to let people know we were doing it.”

Overall, the University will seek to honor subway alumni throughout the weekend with various events, according to a University press release published Tuesday. Festivities kicked off Thursday with a prayer service in St. Peter’s Church for Notre Dame community members impacted by the 9/11 attacks. The play “Sorin: A Notre Dame Story” was also presented Thursday. On Friday, members of the Notre Dame community will participate in a service project and host multiple panels. The celebrations will conclude Saturday with a Mass celebrated by University President Fr. John Jenkins at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a marching band concert and the football game.

According to the release, the events are free and open to the public, though some require registration in advance.

Browne said Notre Dame first began to gain subway alumni during the early 20th century, when Catholic immigrants often faced discrimination.

“[Notre Dame] became very prominent in the American imagination,” he said. “It really dates back to the 1920s. And there were two things kind of interesting going on in the 1920s — in Indiana, in the midwest but Indiana specifically, the Ku Klux Klan stronghold was in Indiana. And Notre Dame as a University was viewed very suspiciously and antagonistically.”

Because of this, the University had a hard time finding schools willing to play them in football, Browne said.

“It was difficult for Knute Rockne, the coach, to get a number of midwestern universities to accept playing football with Notre Dame because they were those ‘Fighting Irish,’ meaning those fighting, brawling, drunken Irish,” he said. “That original term was a slur that Rockne had the brilliance to take over and wear as a badge of honor.”

As a result, the football team had to travel the country to play schools across the nation, Browne said.

“[Rockne] had to take the Notre Dame team on the road, had to travel to New York to play Army, which would not discriminate, which would play us,” he said. “But in doing that … Notre Dame was the first football team to play nationally. Before that, nobody went through a couple of days on a train to go somewhere. They all played regional. But out of necessity, Rockne brought us to New York.”

When the Notre Dame football team arrived in New York, they were greeted by numerous Catholic fans, Browne said.

“When [Rockne] gets to New York, New York City is filled with what? Irish Catholic immigrants. Italian Catholic immigrants. Polish Catholic immigrants,” he said. “And Notre Dame to them is an aspirational place. It is a place where Catholics can be admitted to a university, not be discriminated against, like my own mother in Northern Ireland. She couldn’t get into a good university if they looked at her name. … It wasn’t a law that discriminated, but they could tell by her name that she was Catholic.”

Browne himself identifies as a subway alumnus. He said his parents long admired Notre Dame as a place where Catholics could get a good education, despite facing discrimination.

“My parents didn’t go to college,” Browne said. “They knew nothing about American football, because football to them was soccer. So they didn’t know anything about the sport, they didn’t know anything about American higher education.

“All they knew was that Notre Dame was this aspirational place that did not discriminate against immigrants and we were Notre Dame fans for that reason. I, as a little kid, learned the Notre Dame fight song, and I couldn’t have told you where Notre Dame was but I would listen or watch the games with my father.”

Similar stories exist across the country, Browne said, and contribute to a large subway alumni population.

“Repeat that millions of times in cities specifically on the Northeast — New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago,” he said. “This created what became known, because it started in New York, as the subway alumni, people who were not alumna at all, but they identify with Notre Dame because of their immigrant tradition, because they were Catholic and they wanted to root for the team that represented them in a way larger than just football.”

Browne said subway alumni’s love for Notre Dame persists today. He recounted the enthusiasm with which policemen greeted Jenkins when he toured the One World Trade Center a few years ago, before it opened.

“They were all so proud … they brought him up to the very top of the Freedom Tower, before it opened, before it was finished and had him sign his name on a steel beam on the very top of the Freedom Tower,” Browne said. “It’s now enclosed behind walls, etc., but it was very important to them to have Fr. Jenkins of Notre Dame sign the steel at the top of the New World Trade Center. It’s all tied to that history of immigration and pride in ethnicity and religion.”

Their excitement stemmed from their love for the University, Browne said.

“It meant a lot to those cops because it was the president of Notre Dame,” he said. “The president of any other university? They wouldn’t care, to be honest.”

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About Natalie Weber

Natalie Weber graduated in 2020 from the University of Notre Dame, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and minors in journalism and computing. A native of Grand Junction, Colorado she most recently served as Managing Editor at The Observer. // Email: [email protected] // Twitter: @wordsbyweber

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