‘Chris is Notre Dame’: Notre Dame community remembers Chris Westdyk
Tom Naatz | Tuesday, August 27, 2019
Chris Westdyk was “a huge Stanford guy.”
The class of 2019 alumnus was a devoted member of the Stanford Hall community, Justin McDevitt, Stanford Hall’s rector, remembered.
“He lived and breathed Stanford, waved the flag at events, led walkovers to games, and was just all about the life of the hall,” McDevitt said in an email. “He would also do anything for anyone. He was always known as an all-in [kind of] guy.”
Westdyk died June 3 after a long battle with cancer. He was 22 years old.
Throughout his four years at Notre Dame, Westdyk filled a series of roles within his dorm, including a two-time Welcome Weekend ambassador, designer of the Stanford flag and resident assistant (RA), among others. His fellow RA and former roommate Joe Everett (’19) said Westdyk was skilled at developing a sense of community.
Editor’s Note: Everett is a former sports editor for The Observer.
“Chris was extremely loyal to the places and people he cared about and would dedicate himself to them in any way he could,” Everett said in an email. “He found a home in Stanford Hall, and therefore gave of himself constantly to cultivate community. …Chris built community in a lot of small, everyday ways, whether through kind gestures or a willingness to help any way he could. He held everybody to the same standard he held himself to, and that was a pretty outstanding and inspiring goal for us all to live up to.”
Liz Jakubowski (’19), a friend who got to know Westdyk through a series of shared classes, said it was impossible to think about Westdyk without immediately associating him with Stanford Hall.
“I don’t think it’s possible really to separate Chris from Stanford,” she said. “It was so important to who he was and what he stood for which I think is really unique and it was really beautiful that he cared so much about the men there, and he would just mention that at different moments or show that through what he was talking about doing with his section and spending time investing in the people there. It was just such a gift.”
In addition to his presence within Stanford, Westdyk was deeply engaged in the wider Notre Dame community. He interned at the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and completed multiple Appalachia service trips. Lydia Piendel (’18) met Westdyk on an Appalachia trip she led.
“It turned out we had a lot in common, and we became pretty good friends throughout the trip,” Piendel said.
Outside of his academic and service commitments, friends also remembered Westdyk as an avid sports fan. Everett said the two once spontaneously drove to Buffalo, New York from campus to attend the Notre Dame men’s basketball team’s second round NCAA tournament game against West Virginia in 2017.
“Chris called me out of the blue to say that he had a burning desire to watch the men’s basketball team play against West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo,” Everett said. “’Why not?’ I thought, ‘Let’s go on an adventure.’ The game was a day away, so we made plans quickly. I picked Chris up from Main Circle at three in the morning, and we drove seven hours to get to Buffalo on time for the game. … In terms of Notre Dame men’s basketball homes games, I don’t think Chris missed one throughout his four years.”
Liam Gannon, a rising senior who knew Westdyk since the two were both students at Morristown, New Jersey’s Delbarton School, said Westdyk was also a dedicated baseball fan who loved the New York Mets. Piendel, too, said she will always associate Westdyk’s memory with his Mets cap.
“He always wore his Mets hat,” Piendel said.
Westdyk was a dedicated runner. Gannon said their friendship developed when they were cross country teammates at Delbarton.
“We were both on the [cross country] team, but he was a year above me,” Gannon said in an email. “He was in the midst of a breakout season, and I was still trying to learn the ropes, but he was a very friendly guy, good to know in the class above. … We got to know each other pretty well.”
Westdyk battled melanoma throughout both high school and college. He underwent various treatment regimens, though he largely kept it to himself. Piendel said she first learned about Westdyk’s fight with cancer during their Appalachia trip one night at a reflective campfire.
“We got to a point in the reflection where we were talking about tough things we were going through, and when we got to Chris’ turn, he told us — and this was like halfway through the week — he told us he was battling cancer,” she said. “We were all shocked because we had no idea. He had not said that at any point; it was not disclosed to us when we were learning about any of the Appalachia members or anything like that. It was shocking, but he also clearly didn’t want it to be a big deal, so we didn’t really make it a big deal.”
Westdyk’s choice to keep his fight to himself largely originated from his sense of humility, McDevitt said.
“Chris was tough. You heard it again and again in the memorials of him, at his funeral, in conversations with the guys after the fact,” he said. “… He didn’t want to be exceptional or seen as a hero. He just lived his life with grit and hard work. When Chris finally told everyone, people were blown away not because he had kept it a secret but because of all he managed to do while also living with this secret. It was incredible.”
Westdyk kept up all of his activities and hobbies throughout the course of his treatment — including running, and completing the New York City Marathon in fall 2018. Jakubowski recalled Westdyk taking his intense training regimen in stride as he prepared for the marathon.
“He’d be like ‘Oh, I’m tired this morning,’ and I’d be like ‘I’m tired too,’ and then ask about his morning,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Oh I actually ran 20 miles in preparation for this marathon,’ and he’d show up to class and participate and everything and be fully present there and chat with me afterwards and then go to work in the afternoon. He was just so fully invested in it and everything. It was just so fun, he just invested himself in what he loved and invested himself in people.”
Piendel ran with Westdyk on a handful of occasions and said she admired him for his accomplishments.
“I mean going through a variety of treatments is not easy on someone’s body, but he’s still running and running fast,” she said. “You’re sitting there struggling to keep up and breathing hard, and he’s just ahead of you saying, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He stayed with me the whole time and was very encouraging. It felt weird because it felt like it should have been the other way around, like I should be the one encouraging him, but it didn’t go that way.”
Gannon also fondly recalled running with Westdyk.
“Most of all though, my favorite memories are just running with him on the running traiIs, boardwalks, or on campus,” he said. “Even when it had been a while since we had seen each other, it was never hard to have a fun conversation during the run that continued for hours after, when we’d go to the bagel shop or the dining hall. It was impossible to run out of things to talk about with Chris.”
Even as Westdyk’s battle reached its final stages, he was able to receive his Notre Dame degree from University President Fr. John Jenkins in a ceremony held in his hospital room, attended by family and Stanford Hall staff.
“It was clear that the entire University was dedicated to seeing Chris through to the end, and he made it,” McDevitt said. ”… Chris is Notre Dame.”
Westdyk’s friends said they hoped he would be remembered for his unassuming and humble nature, his positive impact on other people and the inspiration he provided throughout his health struggle.
“He will be remembered for his perseverance, his dedication, his love, his commitment, and his running the race as well as anybody has,” Everett said. “To witness his strength in the face of adversity was life-changing.”
Gannon echoed that sentiment in his reflections on Westdyk’s life.
“He was always smiling,” Gannon said. “Things were hard for him a lot, especially near the end, but he had such an amazing energy and positive presence that was infectious. Chris always lived in the moment and gave all of himself to the people he was with, and I’m sure that everyone who knew him will remember him in that way.”
Piendel said she hopes others draw inspiration from the fullness with which Westdyk lived his life despite his circumstances.
“I hope that everyone who knew Chris or has heard about him can feel inspired to go out and still accomplish amazing things regardless of what you’re going through, but also be there to build other people up to accomplish what they want,” Piendel said. “It’s really amazing what he was able to do while also undergoing just horrible treatments and pain and worry. A lot of people would’ve just broken down in worry and dropped out of school, but he didn’t and he just continued. I think that it’s really inspiring for sure. He was very quietly inspiring.”
Jakubowski said she hopes Westdyk understood his positive impact on the Notre Dame community.
“I think his impact on this campus rippled, and I don’t think he would’ve ever predicted how far. And I think he deserves so much gratitude … for the way that he has contributed at so many different levels and different arenas,” she said. “… He was just very loved by a wide variety of people here and I’m not sure he knew the way he could make people smile, the way that he could make people’s days a little better, and that aggregated effect is something that is such a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
A version of this story was published July 1.