Saint Mary‘s professor publishes memoir of undergraduate years at Notre Dame
Ariana Howe | Friday, September 4, 2020
Department chair of humanistic studies Phil Hicks recently published a book entitled, “Old Notre Dame: Paul Fenlon, Sorin Hall & Me,” about a professor he became friends with when he was a history major at Notre Dame.
“[It’s] a memoir of my undergraduate days when I befriended an 80-year-old professor who had lived in my dorm for 60 years,” Hicks said. “I wrote down everything he did and said — campus stories going back to 1915 — and helped him survive as the very last of the ‘bachelor dons,’” Hicks said.
Hicks emphasized the importance of loyalty in his book, and he also discussed the uniqueness of friendships between the young and old.
“One of its messages is that generations can be bridged in friendship more easily than we might think,” Hicks said. “The book also honors the value of history and tradition and of loyalty to institutions — in this case, Paul Fenlon’s loyalty to Notre Dame, Sorin Hall and the Catholic Church.“
Hicks said he felt motivated to write about his professor because he was deeply involved in Notre Dame for decades.
“Paul Fenlon had been a student at Notre Dame, a faculty member and a retiree, all the while living in Sorin Hall, and yet when I met him as a freshman in 1976, he seemed under-appreciated by the campus community, especially by my fellow Sorinites,” Hicks said.
Even as a student, Hicks knew Fenlon’s story needed to be told.
“I wanted to make a record of those stories and of Paul Fenlon’s daily life, because somehow I had become obsessed with the history of Sorin Hall, and I was convinced there was an audience for this material,” he said.
For Hicks, writing this book wasn’t just about the history of the University and a narrative of Fenlon’s life. This book was deeply personal, as Hicks dug into parts of his own life as well.
“Trying to set down on paper my own emotional response to his death was also hard to do because I’d never written anything so personal before,” he said.
Writing this book took him around 44 years to finish, but the base of all of it was from his years as a student when he engaged directly with Fenlon.
“By the spring semester, I was visiting him nearly every day, completely enchanted by his storytelling, and by the time I was a senior I had written a couple hundred pages on everything he did and said,“ Hicks said.
Hicks elaborated on why, after all these years, he decided to write this book instead of donating his writings to the University Archives.
“Originally, I thought I would just hand it over to the University Archives as a record of my undergraduate days,” Hicks said, “But it was so messy that I had to transcribe it first, and in so doing I recognized it made no sense without lots of explanatory context.”
Once he decided that he wanted to turn his writings into a book, it took a few more years to find balance between writing, family time and work.
“During the semester, I’m preoccupied with classes and departmental activities, so that leaves mainly summers and occasional sabbaticals for research,” Hicks said. “Don’t forget that my wife and four children are a priority for me, too. I don’t know if you could call my life a balanced one or not, because between family and work, I don’t have much of a social life.”
Writing while raising a family and working a job was time consuming, but he was still able to publish his book.
“It took about five years writing in my spare time to produce a good draft, then a few more years to get feedback on it, find a publisher and make final revisions.”
Hicks hopes the book will resonate with many members of the Notre Dame community.
“[The] book deals with so many facets of the school — the sports teams, dorm life, the professors and administration, the Holy Cross priests — that anyone with an interest in Notre Dame should enjoy it, whether they are current students, alums from the 1950s or just fans of the school,” Hicks said.