Bill Schmitt & I “Love Thee Notre Dame”

Bill Schmitt & I “Love Thee Notre Dame” October 2, 2014

Lisa and Greg watch ND vs. BYU, November 2013. We're praying for warmer football weather this weekend!
Lisa and Greg watch ND vs. BYU, November 2013. We’re praying for warmer football weather this weekend!

This weekend, I get to take a trip with my college sweetheart (and hubby) back to the place where we fell in love. The excuse for our excursion may be the tickets we’re holding to see Notre Dame defeat Stanford (we hope!) on the gridiron, but while we’re on campus we’ll revisit many places that are dear to us. In the few hours before and after the game, we’ll definitely visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Grotto and the Hesburgh Libraries. I hope to kiss Greg in front of each of these places, and also to give thanks to the amazing God who has blessed me with such a fantastic husband and life.

While I’m anticipating our excursion, I thought it would be fun to share with you a recent email conversation I had with my friend William G. (“Bill”) Schmitt. Bill’s bio is rich and his love for Our Lady’s University is “tender, strong and true”:

Bill has served Notre Dame as a writer, manager, and media specialist for nearly a decade, following a journalism career that focused on business, science, and public policy. He is a product of Catholic schools, from first grade through Fordham University, with certificates from Georgetown University and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. He holds an MPA degree from Princeton University. He is a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order and an officer in the Knights of Columbus and the campus Phi Beta Kappa chapter.

Bill is also the author of two amazing books Football Weekends at Notre Dame: Snapshots and Traditions and Words of Life: Celebrating 50 Years of the Hesburgh Library’s Message, Mural, and MeaningWhether or not you’re a Notre Dame fan, I hope our conversation will shine some light on this special place and her people.

William G. Schmitt

Q: Bill, welcome to – you’ve been a great resource in the past in your role with the Alliance for Catholic Education, but today we’re here to talk about your wonderful books! Please briefly introduce yourself and your family to our readers.

A. I’m blessed to have been living in South Bend for 11 years with my wonderful wife Eileen and our amazing daughter Mary, who is now a senior at St. Joseph High School. We moved here in 2003 so I could make a mid-life career change from the world of journalism in New York and Washington to the world of a communications staff member at Notre Dame, using my newsroom skills to support Catholic higher education and focus attention on the values and missions that matter most. We love the family, parish, campus, and community life we experience in the Midwest, and I love reaching out to the media and many other audiences about the Good News as it’s lived by the people of Notre Dame. It’s been an honor to meet you and discuss ND initiatives like the Alliance for Catholic Education.

Q: As a Notre Dame grad and lifelong Irish fan, I have to say that I love both of your books! As I prepare for my own trek back to the Dome, I was thinking that they are a perfect resource for a “weekend at Notre Dame”. Tell us about the first book — Football Weekends at Notre Dame: Snapshots and Traditions. How did it come about and how awesome was it to write that book?

A. Awesome is the right word because the idea for the book was hatched from the awe of being on the sidelines of Notre Dame Stadium to experience the flag-presentation ceremonies, the band performances, the team emerging from the tunnel, and the electricity of 80,000 cheering Fighting Irish fans. I received that privilege for a few seasons when I joined the University’s communications staff and the assistant director asked me to help out with his duties coordinating the traditional pre-game events. I soon realized how many traditions—not directly related to the actual football game—surround every aspect of game day. They gave joy and inspiration to fans of all sorts and family members of all generations. Curious about this phenomenon which I had discovered as a New York transplant and Fighting Irish newcomer, I plunged into the historical, spiritual, and community stories that make Notre Dame football weekends such a beloved experience. My research led me to interview many people whose efforts helped everything come together. I worked with a photographer friend and wrote the text in my spare time, largely as a tribute to the individuals, the groups, the University and the local citizens. Lisa, all the things you got to enjoy as an undergraduate came to me as an invigorating discovery later in life, and it made me feel young. Plus I got to do things like eat hot dogs with press box denizens, visit Knute Rockne’s grave, and see the midnight gathering where the Drummer’s Circle gets the students revved up as the big Saturday begins.

Schmitt_Words of LifeQ: After the Grotto and the Basilica, my third favorite spot on the Notre Dame campus is the library. Please tell us about Words of Life: Celebrating 50 Years of the Hesburgh Library’s Message, Mural, and Meaning — how did you do all of your research? What are some great details you learned in the writing process?

A. The library, which many people know as the home of what they call the “Touchdown Jesus” mural, is a great place that continues to be a 24-hour hub for student life in the digital age. The University of Notre Dame Press invited me to write the book, partly because one of my communications staff assignments had been to write about the projects and people of the library for several years for their own newsletter. I benefited from these insights into the building’s day-to-day life. Also, a generous archivist introduced me to the library’s 50 years of history, and Father Ted Hesburgh and his long-time assistant were very hospitable as they helped me appreciate the library as a special place for Father Ted. It houses his office, with a beautiful view of the Sacred Heart Basilica and Mary atop the Main Building’s dome. It represents his vision for Notre Dame—as its President from 1952 to 1987–to soar in the search for knowledge and wisdom, recognizing a complementarity with those other two buildings and a continuum from Christ the Teacher as the Way, the Truth, and the Life—the Word made flesh. The 134-foot-high granite mural on the library’s southern face was a remarkable feat for its time. Its real title is “The Word of Life.” The library dedication in 1964 was an academic and religious milestone, with three visiting cardinals and a message of blessing from Pope Paul VI.

Q: Many know Notre Dame for its football team. But you work in one of the most amazing organizations on campus. Please share about the “ACE” program and how the writing you’ve done for the University in the past has prepared you for the role you play there now?

A. Yes, the Alliance for Catholic Education is seamlessly connected to the writing I’ve done about the University’s Catholic impulse for outreach and service and its love for research and learning that enhance the greater good of society. And it honors Christ the Teacher as a source of hope for children from all backgrounds. On Notre Dame’s communications staff, I was privileged to assist with various messages and management tasks for the Congregation of Holy Cross, and a Holy Cross priest, Father Tim Scully, CSC, founded ACE in 1993. ACE helps fulfill the Holy Cross mission to educate hearts as well as minds. We recently marked ACE’s 20th year of forming and sending faith-filled teachers to serve kids, many of them disadvantaged, in under-resourced Catholic K-12 schools across the country. I’ve gotten a chance to write about—and alert the nation’s journalists to—the ways in which ACE and the Institute for Educational Initiatives are heeding the papal call for U.S. universities to sustain and strengthen these schools. They carry on a vital legacy for children, the Church, and society at large.

Q: Why do you think that people — even those who haven’t attended Notre Dame — feel such a connection to this amazing place?

A. They sense what I’ve come to see in my communications work here. Notre Dame is really all about being connected. In the spirit of our faith and our concept of the authentic university, Notre Dame fosters relationships and synergies that can transcend generations, geographic distances, academic disciplines, and the many fault lines that make our culture seem so disconnected sometimes. When you think of Notre Dame, it’s appropriate to think of tradition and the future, faith and reason, the sacred and the civic, academics and sports, adopting huge goals and celebrating the “little guy,” and pursuing peace and embracing purposes worth “fighting for,” to use the phrase from our football-game TV spots.

Q: Many have doubted the University’s Catholicity in the past few years? Can you address this situation and offer any insight on these challenges?

A. I reflect on that issue as a communications staffer, thinking in terms of countless stories I’ve written, events I’ve attended, and people, places, and projects that have been part of my daily life in work and leisure. It’s been my honor to witness and give voice to a vibrant, everyday Catholicity. I’m thankful for my own faith and that of my family and friends growing deeper here. It’s been nurtured through all the resources and opportunities here, which engage the mind and heart and all one’s senses and sensibilities. Again I’d say it’s a place that’s unusually open to extraordinary relationships and connections through which so many students, staff, faculty, and visitors are drawing closer to the Lord. That was a goal in both of my books—to show how connections to God’s love and providence add an extra dimension to Notre Dame experiences.

Bill Schmitt with wife Eileen and daughter Mary
Bill Schmitt with wife Eileen and daughter Mary

Q: If someone only has one day to visit campus, how do you recommend that they spend it?

A. My wife and I just took some friends on a tour of campus this past weekend. They loved the “photo ops” and the places you mentioned—the Basilica, the Grotto, the library, plus the Golden Dome, the stadium, the lakes, and the trees brandishing autumn leaves. Besides those, it will depend on the visitors and what they’re interested in. For our guests, and I think for many visitors, it’s helpful not to crowd the schedule too much. Our guests, for example, enjoyed lingering, sensing the students’ relaxation (it was not a home-game Saturday) and the overall peace. It was news to them—news which they pondered—that it was a statue of Mary atop the Dome. They were moved to light candles at the Grotto. If your visit does come on a game day, then feel free to immerse yourself in all the connections—from Knights of Columbus steak sandwiches to the tailgates to the concerts and plenty more.

Q: I have to ask — any prognostications about this year’s football season?

A. Thanks for asking. I suppose that, at one time in my life, I hoped my work in journalism might lead to being a prognosticator, a famous pundit. Nowadays, I’m more into going with the mystery, enjoying the moment. So I’ll avoid a prediction except to say that the football season will continue to be filled with countless traditions, some old, some new. Lots of stories, too … always good for communicators and connection-makers of all kinds. Look for stories that go beyond the scores, odds, and controversies.

Q: What future do you foresee for ACE and for the University as a whole?

A. Father Scully loves to say about ACE that “we’re just getting started,” and that’s always the feeling around ACE and all of Notre Dame. For me and Eileen, a focus of our future is our daughter Mary. We hope she might become the product of 16 years of Catholic education, like me. I’m grateful ACE and Notre Dame will nurture leaders who keep Catholic learning, at all levels, connected to its traditions, with a zeal to thrive and serve.

Q: Are there any additional thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?

A. Everyone should come and experience Notre Dame in person, hopefully with a friend or relative who will witness to the joy of relationship-building on this campus. Let its spirit and its stories encounter you where you are. Lisa, we’re glad your own plans include a trek back here soon.

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