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Old Notre Dame:

Paul Fenlon, Sorin Hall & Me

(Corby Books, 2020)

© Philip Hicks


Early Life (1891-1916)

The Professor offered another round of details about his family history and first years at Notre Dame.  He started with deep background:

“For a few months, my parents lived with my mother’s family, then they built this house before they were married in 1891.  They tell the story on my mother that she came to see it for the first time and things were not designed quite as she would have liked.  But it would have been impossible for her to supervise the construction of it.  Remember, she was living in Woodstock, Illinois at the time. 

“I was born during McKinley’s term of office, but the first president I really had any conception of was Teddy Roosevelt, even though he was out of office.  Taft was the first president I had a feel for, but I was angry at him, because in Blairsville we were promised a holiday from school on Taft’s inauguration day, but my grandmother had died the previous day, so I had to travel to Woodstock, Illinois for the funeral.  At the time, the whole significance of the funeral to me was that I missed the holiday.  I bitched about it for a few days.

“I never knew my father’s mother or my father’s father.  My father’s father died when my father was eight years old in an awful train accident, so my mother always had a phobia about crossing railroad tracks.  We had to walk five and a half blocks to grade school and cross tracks, but my mother never let us cross them by ourselves.  In those days, there were no guards that came down.  They just had a flagman who waved when the train came, poof, poof, poof.”  Here the Professor motioned with both hands overhead.

“My father all his life worked the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  At first, he worked in the ticketing agency, then he used to weigh the freight cars.  He had a little office with all of these gadgets hanging down.  The train car would disconnect and it would be weighed.  Then the next car would come and my father would do the same thing.  I was fascinated by the car setting down with I don’t know how many hundreds and thousands of pounds of coal, then my father working the gadgets and this big number appearing.  I rarely was allowed to watch him do it.  He was always busy and my mother would not let us disturb his work.

“Of course, when I die, I would like to see my immediate family in heaven and especially relatives I’ve never seen before.  We were much closer to my mother’s side, the Marrs.  We really never knew my father’s side, the Barrs—the Barrs and the Marrs.  My first cousins were all twenty-five or thirty years old when we were in grade school, so there was a real generational difference.  But Paul Byrne says that when you behold the beatific vision you are totally satisfied and want to see nobody else, and he sent me several pamphlets to convince me of this.  But I want to see who makes it to heaven, to see my relatives, though there are some I don’t want to see!

“I’ve always feared tuberculosis.  Across the way from my home, my cousin Paul Cornell contracted it.  One day I saw him being wheeled about and I asked my mother what was happening.  My mother said, ‘He’s in the last stages,’ and he died.  I still take the tuberculosis what-do-you-call-it.  I was exposed to so many TB deaths in my youth that I dread it to this day.

“When I was little—six or seven years old—we had an Irish priest in our parish, Father Hawe, who always spoke of the fear of God—heaven and hell.  He instilled an awful fear of God in me then and I think that fear is still with me today to a degree.  And that’s a bad thing, but I can’t help it.  He was Irish and he frequently went back to Ireland in the summer.  And when he returned, his homilies frequently became travelogues.  He would talk about being on the ship ‘with the waves rolling up and down.  Oh, and the waves!  The waves!’  Why, I even remember the mission in Woodstock.  They had a Father Corcoran, who was even a CSC, and boy he used to preach, too—fire and brimstone, that’s what he preached.

“When my sister Sarah was married, Father Hawe objected to our wanting the ceremony in the house.  He had a rule that everyone must be married in the church building and 7:30 a.m. was the only permissible time.  Most of my parents’ friends in Blairsville were Protestants.  They were coal people or, if you want to be snobby about it, the coal elite.  And we wanted them to be at the wedding, so we planned it for our house.  But Father Hawe wanted to meet them so badly that he made an exception in our case so that it could be done in our home.  But he had been so adamant about that rule.  Anyone married outside of his church was committing a sin.  In fact, people were required to do public penance for it.  Couples who had broken the rule and wanted to get married again in the church first had to do penance on the steps outside of our church.

“I remember reading the classic Black Beauty, but mother would not allow us to read those Horatio Alger stories because she thought they were nonsense.

“When I was eight or nine years old, I was playing on the tennis court and a white bulldog got loose from a clothesline and chased me.  I ran up the porch steps but the dog bit me in the rump, tearing the skin, and it just hung there, refusing to release its grip.  To this day, I am petrified of dogs.

 “As a sophomore in high school, I remember walking past my parents’ bedroom and seeing the light on.  My father must have been searching through the medicine cabinet, trying to relieve one of my mother’s gallbladder attacks, which happened about every other night.  I remember the family doctor warning her that corn on the cob would aggravate her condition.  He said, ‘Mrs. Fenlon, corn is fit only for hogs.’  Finally, she went to the hospital and stayed six weeks.  I really didn’t understand it or how serious it was at all.  Finally they drained the bladder, and one day my father brought home a box of shiny black stones like polished gems—seventy-two of them!” 

The Professor had vivid but conflicting memories of his first night at Notre Dame.  For a little extra money, President Cavanaugh agreed to move him from the open-air dormitory of Brownson Hall with its rows of beds and desks at the east end of the Main Building into a room in Corby Hall next door.  This account differed from another version he told me, in which it was Father Finnegan, not President Cavanaugh, who made the room change, in Corby, not the Main Building:  “When I got to Notre Dame, I spent one night, the very first one, with a roommate.  I had signed up for Corby Hall and had a room on the first floor, what they’ve now turned into a lounge for the priests.  It used to be quartered off into little rooms like we’ve got in Sorin.  This was straight ahead as you walk in today, on the other side of the bulletin board.  Anyway, the first night was awful!  So the next morning, I walked into Finnegan’s office—we called him Sister Mary Finnegan—and I said I just had to have a room by myself.  It was nothing personal, but I just didn’t like my roommate.  His name was Ray, Ray somebody, from Madison, Wisconsin or someplace like that.  Isn’t it terrible?  I don’t even remember his name.  So I told Finnegan that I wanted to go upstairs.  I don’t know why; I just wanted to live up there.  So my trunk was brought up and I began unpacking.

“Later, Father Schumacher handed me a card to fill out.  He asked, ‘Why haven’t you put down your middle name?’  I told him I had no middle name.  ‘You’re a Catholic; you must have a middle name.  Now write it down.’  ‘It’s Ignatius, but I’ve never used it,’ I said.  But I relented and wrote it down.  I was never curious enough to look at the school directory once it was published, but when I finally did I was horrified to read ‘Paul Ignatius Fenlon, C. C. C.’  My God, I thought, I was a C. S. C.!  Here my father had sent me off to a Catholic school, and now he had made me into a priest.  Later I asked about it and was relieved to learn that C. C. C. stood for Catholic Confirmed Communicant.

“As a freshman, I wanted to take a history course, because I had three years of it in high school.  The best history teacher I ever had at Notre Dame was the vice president, Father Walsh, but my first semester I got into Professor Hines’s class.

“It used to be that to go off campus you had to go to the vice president to get permission.  When Father Crumley was VP, a certain student named Donovan went to him and asked, ‘Father, my father would like me to go to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving.’  In very slow, measured words”—the point of the story—“Crumley replied calmly, ‘Why does your father want you to go to Chicago?’  Donovan said, ‘Well, it’s a family matter, and you know my mother just recently died, and—.’  Crumley said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to lettt youuuu gooo to Chicagooo, Donovaaaaan.’

 “Come to think of it, I had Father Crumley for at least two years. I remember that before we could pass one class he made us learn so much of ‘To A Skylark’ by Shelley that I can still recite it today.  You could get everything but English some days from Father Crumley.  He was interested in poetry but also in the various vegetation on campus that he would tell us about.  Along with my dear friend Father Pete Hebert, Crumley placed these little bronze plaques—only about so big—that told the names of the plants and trees.

“My freshman year some students burned the streetcar.  We were not allowed to learn about it, but Hugh O’Donnell was one of the students involved, and he didn’t want that known after he became president of the university.

“When I was a student a lot of the boys wore corduroys, which I still don’t like.  They always got so dirty and I think the boys never washed them.  Then later on I didn’t like the blue jeans either.  I’ve never worn a pair in my life.  They wore in my day those awful hobnail shoes, too, like golf shoes with nails on the bottom.  But my crowd then was a little more fashionable; our set wore starched high collars that were very uncomfortable, all the way up your neck, very stiff.  But that was the style, so we wore it.  Back home, I have a picture of Charlie Macaulay and Stretch O’Connor and myself wearing them.  We had a string tie and the smaller the knot could be tied, the better—that was the rage, too, for some of us.  Sometime later ‘pumps’ were introduced, which were without buckles or shoelaces, really just glorified slippers.  I wore them sometimes, but it was a little silly because we’d be walking around with them in the deepest snow.  I couldn’t wear them all the time because they were expensive, but I wore them when I could afford them.  I had, remember, a pretty limited wardrobe, but I could buy just about whatever I wanted.  For Sunday mass, of course, we were required to wear our ‘Sunday best.’

“In Corby my sophomore year, Eugene Burke was the second-floor prefect, on the far right as you look straight ahead at the building, just above where Father Joyce lives today—was it room 311?  Father Hebert was my third-floor prefect.  I remember my mother visited me once in that room and brought me candy.  We were all amazed at how Father Burke ended up eating it all.  Mother always heard me mention ‘Father Eugene,’ but she ended up calling him ‘Father Gene’ the whole time.  Poor old mother!  But she was a good mother.

“When I first moved into Sorin, there was a horrible creature here named Bull McManus as our rector.  He was not my idea of a priest very much.  He was just a great big heavy-set frowzy old fellow that liked to sleep most of the time, I think.  He wasn’t a teacher.  During my junior year, Father Manahan, I think, was the rector here and then he was followed by Father James Galligan, ‘Diamond Jim’ Galligan.  He talked between his teeth like this.  He was a very nice, very companionable sort of man.  He was strict, he got results, and boys liked him.”

The next year, when the Professor was a junior, a famous episode took place in the refectory on the last day of class in 1918, when students pelted Father Finnegan with the Notre Dame buns.  I recited a piece of doggerel that marked the event and asked him about it. “You see, we were held over.  We had to wait until the seniors had been given their exams and graduated, then we were given our exams.  And that was our last morning, and I didn’t actually see the incident, but a commotion was raised by it, and afterwards I heard a good deal about it.  What I do remember was that the meat they served you was so awful.  It left such a horrible taste in my mouth that I’d bring along a half bar of chocolate to eat after my dinner, to leave a sweet taste in my mouth.  I’ve done it ever since, something I’ve done for a hundred years.”

Old Notre Dame

Paul Fenlon, Sorin Hall & Me

(Corby Books, 2020)

© Philip Hicks


I mentioned to the Professor that I had read about a protest at Sorin in the 1920s, and I asked whether the seniors in those days really wanted more freedoms and privileges than the freshmen.

“Yes,” he said, “this was a common complaint.  The discipline was a hangover from the preps, and the college men wanted to have more freedom, naturally.  They wanted to be treated a little bit better than an average high school boy.

“You know, it used to be that you could be thrown out of school for any kind of smoking at all.  I remember one evening the second-floor prefect invited me down to his room after ten o’clock lights out.  He quickly slammed the door, pulled out a carton of cigarettes, and lit up.  He loved cigarettes but wasn’t allowed to smoke.  Students were willing to clasp a lit cigarette in their hand and let it burn rather than be expelled.  You could take the decorative tops off the posts of a brass bed and find them stuffed with cigarette butts.”

I followed up with another question about that decade:  “I read in Arthur Hope’s book that it was in the 1920s that students stopped saying ‘hello’ as they passed one another.”

“Oh, my yes,” the Professor said.  “The school had grown so much after the war that the boys didn’t know each other anymore.  John Hurley, who I had as a prep student my first year teaching here, he and Ray Cunningham started ‘Hello Week’ here.  This was in 1921 or ‘2, I think.  All the boys had these little cards pinned on their shirts that said ‘Hello’ and then your name.  The boys had ‘Hello Week’ just once that year, at the start, so the boys could learn each other’s names like they used to.

“One summer at about the same time George and I had to leave the hall for two or three weeks and live in a hotel downtown while they installed new plumbing.  We were angry as hell about it.  They put in sinks that summer, but at least we never had to go out of the building to take a bath.  We had showers on every floor.  Paul Byrne remembers hearing that before the building had its wings the boys had to come down to the first floor just to take a bath or go to the toilet.  They didn’t have them on the upper floors.”


Rather than distill his beliefs into aphorisms, the Professor took more delight in sharing the one-liners of others.  He was full of opinions, of course, but he didn’t take them too seriously; he understood they were his opinions only and he didn’t offer them as maxims for living.  He liked Bette Davis.  He liked John F. Kennedy “very, very much.”   He disliked Amy Carter for upstaging her father at his first state dinner (“She’s a brat!”).  He disliked Tennessee Williams and couldn’t understand why we would wait an hour in the overheated lobby of Washington Hall to hear him speak, though he conceded, “I suppose he’s very famous.”

When he did make dogmatic statements, they were often nothing more than the pet peeves of a retired English teacher.  He objected to saying “It was me” rather than “It was I”; to the use of “note” as a verb; to the word “okay”—“don’t say that; say ‘alright’ or ‘fine’”; to the term “mutual friends”—“that’s incorrect and we have Dickens to blame; he started it and we all know it should be ‘common friends.’”   Once he startled me by yelling at the news anchor on television: “It’s industry!  Why can’t they learn to pronounce simple words in the English language?”

This was about as close as he ever came to pontificating, unless he was lamenting the decline of academic standards:  “You boys nowadays don’t know how to write.  All I see is that damn printing.  Do you know how to write?  Has anyone ever taught you?”   Or: “This ‘Easter break’ is ridiculous.  You’re at school so little time with all of these vacations.”   Or again: “You young men have no exams, just these tests.  We used to have two exams a semester, but these one-hour things you take are quizzes.  You’ve been babied!  As Father Crumley once said, ‘You’ve been given all but the breasts!’”

Old Notre Dame:

Paul Fenlon, Sorin Hall & Me

(Corby Books, 2020)

© Philip Hicks