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‘Objects in the Rearview Mirror’: The story behind the first women at the University

When Deborah Dell, known to her loved ones as Debi, arrived at the University of Notre Dame in 1972 with the first cohort of women, she entered with a sharp mind and a lot of determination. 

Now, almost exactly 50 years later, Dell is publishing a book, “Objects in the Rearview Mirror: A Social History of Coeducation under the Dome.” The story took shape over the span of 20 years and with the help of more than 150 contributors who were impacted by the decision to implement coeducation. 

The first years – inspiration and roadblocks

Sitting at the desk of her Morris Inn hotel room, Dell looked at a blank page. 

“Was I the right person to be doing this?” she wondered. 

Dell lived in Breen-Phillips Hall, Walsh Hall and Lyons Hall during her time on campus. She admitted that her circle of friends was small and stuck to themselves most of the time. 

“Books like this should be written by somebody who was important,” she explained her hesitation. 

She was in the midst of a lull in motivation. Dell said she came back to Notre Dame to get inspired. 

“I’m in the hotel room, and I’ve just been to the library to get some stuff out of the archives and I’m struggling,” she said. “It’s like I hear Father Hesburgh, saying ‘Debi, put your faith in the Holy Spirit and His mother, and stop thinking so hard and just trust.’”

Dell said she started brainstorming and researching for this book in 2000 and wrote a couple drafts with a few of her friends contributing in 2001, 2006 and 2011. Her trip to the Morris Inn was during the second draft in 2006. 

“[This book] was a long time coming. That’s an understatement,” she quipped. “I think the only book that took longer was the Bible.”

Debi and Darlene — missed connections and missing pieces

Darlene Connelly, class of 1977, was Dell’s right-hand woman during the second half of the project. She was also Dell’s neighbor on the first floor of Breen-Phillips Hall in 1977 — unbeknownst to either of them until a classmate introduced them a few years ago. 

“Darlene — we lived in the same hall, and I didn’t know her!” Dell said. “It was just the perfect timing and the perfect marriage as far as her approach to things and my approach. We just complemented each other so well.”

Connelly said she was introduced to Dell because she was also thinking of writing a book about her experiences. Connelly’s inspiration came in the form of a mentor, Fr. Tom Tallarida. 

Connelly explained that she had a long friendship with Tallarida throughout her time as an undergraduate and that she maintained contact with him as an adult. 

“We stayed in touch over the years. One year, I think it was 1992, he sent me a letter. He pleaded with me to write the real story about coeducation in those early years at Notre Dame,” she said. 

Connelly said she forgot about that plea until one Christmas when she decided to pay Tallarida a visit. A few days before her plans, Connelly said she got a letter from Tallarida’s niece that he had passed away. 

“I carried Catholic guilt,” she said. “I never got to it. I never got around to it, and I am so sorry, so sorry that I don’t know what the story was that he wanted to tell.”

Dell said Connelly not only brought her expertise to the project, but also the contributions of the women of the class of 1977. 

As Dell hosted mixers for her classmates in South Bend before home football games, word about the project got out, and men started chiming in. The men of the classes of 1976 and 1977 were soon added to the list of the writing process contributors.

Around that time, Dell said she started gathering information about the second generation of women at the University — what had changed and what had not. This was done with the help of Emily Weisbacker. 

Dell also mentioned she believed it was important to include what was going on at Notre Dame’s peer institutions and in the nation at the same time. 

“It was very important to me to also make sure that it wasn’t just the Notre Dame story. We looked at Yale and Princeton, and we looked at what was happening in the culture of the United States during the 70s,” she said. 

Dell said she finally felt ready to write the book once she had collected the experiences of the women and men of the first five years of coeducation, the second generation of women at the University and the historical context for the story.

“So now we had the women who went through it, the men who went through it and then the second generation that was benefiting. [They] were able to tell me about the things that hadn’t changed in 30 or 40 years,” she explained. “[The book] really became so much bigger than the original concept because of the delay that took place.”

Those who went without mention — early women’s athletics 

When the girls first arrived on campus, nothing was set up for them, Dell explained. Other than two hastily renovated dorms, the first few classes of women at Notre Dame had to fashion everything themselves. This included clubs, policy groups, information sharing networks and sports. 

Ron Skrabacz, class of 1976, oversaw the research and writing of the chapters on early women’s athletics. 

Skrabacz, who was only participated in interhall sports during his time on campus, was recruited to write the section because of his work as a sports writer. He wrote for the Daily Herald — a newspaper covering the Chicago suburbs — as a sports columnist for 20 years. 

Skrabacz got involved with the project when he was at Dell’s South Bend house on one Friday night before a football game. 

“Debi is a very brilliant woman, but you can put in a thimble what she knew about sports,” he joked. “She knew it was critical that sports be covered.”

Skrabacz explained that he wrote about the general atmosphere of sports during his time at the University and specifically what the women went through to start their varsity sports. 

Luckily, Skrabacz said his work would not have been possible without the research of Anne Dilenschneider and Jane Lammers. 

The two women were at a 30-year reunion of coeducation when they were shown a video about women’s athletics. Skrabacz explained that Dilenschneider and Lammers were upset that the video did not show the early years or how the women made the programs that today yield national championships.

Lammers and Dilenschneider then started researching. They made posters and sought out connections. The women complied “a boatload” of material, which they turned over to Skrabacz.

“All I did was the easy part. I took all their information, summarized it and turned it into a story,” he said. 

Other than their inclusion in the book, over 250 women who participated in the early building stages of each varsity sport will be memorialized with honorary monograms during a home football game the weekend of Oct. 21 to 23. 

Looking back and looking forward

“Objects” came out Sept. 1 and is now available for order at Barnes & Noble. There are two versions: a paperback and a special edition hardcover.

“We’re limiting the hardcover edition to 365 copies to commemorate and honor the 365 first female undergraduates,” Dell said. “The first 365 hardcover books will have a special cover that commemorates that number.”

The Hammes Bookstore is hosting two book signing events for the new release Friday, Sept. 9 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday, Oct. 14 from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. 

A labor of love of over 20 years, Dell said she hopes the book is a tribute to the strength of the Notre Dame family through good times and bad. 

“It was a time when men and women came together and there were struggles, but we found each other. We had the ability to get through some pretty weird tough times, and that’s the value of the Notre Dame family,” she said. “[The book is] a balanced picture: the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Bella Laufenberg

Contact Bella at ilaufenb@nd.edu