We were fortunate enough to get a priest from St. Rita, the all-male Roman Catholic school on the South side near where my father grew up and went to school. As he listened to family members talk about “the tough SOB” my father prided himself on being when he was alive, the priest smiled and laughed and shook his head. After we said our goodbyes, the father was kind enough to talk to the family.
He told us that our description of our father sounded much like Father Dan, a priest who became principle of St. Rita “back in the day”. He told stories of what a tough SOB Dan was, a man who was paralyzed in an automobile accident. My mother’s eyes lit up as Dan was, as far as we can tell, one of my father’s few close friends growing up as they both went to St. Rita elementary. To find such a connection at a cemetery hundreds of miles and decades away from where we all live now was meaningful.
He empathized and smiled and laughed as he’d known the odd combination of sting and love that comes with being tutored by a man who defined himself as tough. In those days, he told us, there was no choice.
Indeed, my father reveled in stories of playing basketball at the “Y” surrounded by supporting columns (“perfect for body checks on perimeter”,) he loved showing off his football scars and talking about playing ball in the streets. Whether it was all or part lore, it helped him define who he was just as Notre Dame defined him. Though he was proud of his Kellogg degree attained at night school, it was Notre Dame, though he never went there, that drove him to success.
As much as Notre Dame’s lore was partly built by subway alums across the country, subway alums were built by Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish might as well been the Fighting Italians, Germans, Pols and Irish, for they all seemed to be fighting through life and clinging to a vision of hope that the Dome represented. Besides he used to say, only half joking, that with a name like Wally you had to fight.
To guys like my father, faith, excellence, toughness and ND went hand in hand. Later, when the family moved east, and we’d drive to visit the family in Chicago, we’d always drive by the dome and stop. When it came to Saturday’s, football wasn’t optional, but football also wasn’t always the point. Never a game would go by that my father wouldn’t remind me that he would guarantee college funding if I got into Notre Dame. It was a great disappointment to him that he never got to spend that money at ND. But he would always pepper games with stories and lessons that, at least in his mind, Notre Dame stood for and at the core of those principals was that you had to fight for excellence.
Indeed, you could hit that man with a bat and he wouldn’t back down. Not just because he was tough, but because he believed, he had a conviction, that you never gave in and he held on to that idea of fighting through life like a PitBull locked down on a thrown branch.
My father in an odd way saw himself as a little Rockne. Despite “40 years never missing a day of work as an engineer”, he prided himself on the championships he used to win coaching Little-League baseball and Pop-Warner football. Hell the man even won the Pinewood derby twice. We’d like to claim credit, but we know the truth. We played tougher than every other team, hustled every play and outworked them because he made us.
Pardon my bringing a personal story to you and I don’t expect any sympathy for a man who lived to his age, but it’s safe to say NDNation would not exist at all as is does if not for old Wally. And I don’t think old Wally would have been as successful without Notre Dame. When people used to wonder why I worked on “that damn website” all the time (back before Kabong came on and helped automate the site I used to hard code everything which almost got me fired several times), I’d just smile.
And it was worth every minute.
My father’s tough view on life eventually led to my mother divorcing him, a searing red mark of shame on a Roman Catholic from the South side of Chicago. His response was to get tough on himself to the point where he didn’t like life very much. Taking him to Notre Dame games and talking Notre Dame was really the only enduring connection we had.
He fought a little too hard against life, but he fought to the end because it defined him and, in many ways, his generation. It’s been over five years since they gave him a week to live and a year since they gave him days. In the end, he went down fighting as the man he saw himself to be, the Fighting ____________ who dreamed of Golden Domes, Chicago streets and trying, imperfectly, to give his family a better life.
In that way, we are, as a family, indebted to and imbued by Notre Dame.