His life span and mine, thus far, cover 133 years – 1889 to 2022 – and we, my father and I, shared the planet for only 29 of those years before his death.
By Ed Breen
Beg your indulgence today as we take a little journey through time and space, and I would be so pleased if you would accompany me.
We begin on U.S. 31 at Indianapolis, up to Kokomo, north bound past Peru and Rochester and Plymouth and on to South Bend, where we turn right on Angela Boulevard, jog over to Holy Cross Drive on the Notre Dame campus and wend our way north, past the football stadium, almost to the Hesburgh Library and the fabled Touchdown Jesus mosaic and we pull into the parking lot just across the road from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the church on the most Irish and most Catholic campus certainly in the Midwest, maybe in all of America.
We walk past the Grotto, up the steps past the new Corby Hall – as opposed to the old Corby Hall, which will be important in our story- and on to the entrance to the Gothic structure that is the church. It was built in 1871 – and that date, too, will be important in our story.
I ask you to stand here with me on these steps in front of those twin heavy oak doors at the entrance to the church. And I ask you to join me in drifting back in memory, if not in time, to this time of the year at this very spot, these steps, those doors, in 1907. That is, 115 years ago.
On a November morning, probably every morning and certainly on Sunday morning, a cocky little five-foot-seven dark Irish kid with a shock of black hair and an athletic build comes across that adjacent lawn from his dorm room –Room 70 in Corby Hall — and opens these doors to this church and enters.
That youngster – he was 18 years old on that day – was the hotshot freshman quarterback on the Fighting Irish football team. And he knew it. You can tell from the expression on his face in the team photo that fall. He’s the little guy, front row left, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Oh, this was long before the stadium and Touchdown Jesus and bigtime TV. He later said they all remembered the day the Rockne came to South Bend. They all knew that Notre Dame had landed a bigtime football player long before he became a legendary coach, long before the Gipper and Lujack and the Four Horsemen and Hornung and Joe Montana and all the rest. Parseghian and Brennan and Leahy and Holtz hadn’t even been born yet.
This youngster named Maurice – never Maury, always Maurice – had come from northwest Iowa to go to school and to play football and was good enough that, yes, he was going to be the quarterback on this freshman team, at least until he played some pickup basketball on a dirt floor that fall, slipped on a wet spot and blew out his knee. In those days, when you blew out your knee, that’s when the career ended. And so it did.
This kid with the bad knee, who stayed to get his education, who lived in Corby Hall, who walked these steps to those doors, was my dad . . . my father. And I have come to this spot in search of sharing space that he once occupied a century ago.
My father was born back in 1889, grew up, went to Notre Dame, lived in Los Angeles for a while back in the ’20s and finally decided to settle down, get married and father a family in his hometown and home state of Iowa when he was 54 years old. He did all of the above. Now, a personal note: When you are a kid and dad is 65, well, it’s kind of like growing up with grandpa. Oh, I have my memories of hearth and home, but he had lived a full life before I ever came along. What was that life? Where? What did he do in that life? I know he helped smuggle immigrants fleeing Bolshevik Russia into Los Angeles. And he made living of sorts writing term papers for UCLA students back then. He later practiced small-town law in Fort Dodge, Iowa, for decades.
But it’s like this: His life span and mine, thus far, cover 133 years – 1889 to 2022 – and we, my father and I, shared the planet for only 29 of those years before his death. And for many of those years I was an uncaring and disinterested adolescent and teenager. Fifteen-year-olds don’t much care about what dad did. That’s just the way it is.
He was around for the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk and watched on TV when man landed on the moon in his last days. Telephones, automobiles, electric lights, two World Wars – he fought in the first one – and on into the digital age, which he would not have enjoyed.
But my shared space and time was brief and distant. Oh, we shared home and neighborhood and some family vacation trips back when the kids rode in the back seat with all the windows down all day before there was air conditioning.
But what of him? Where, exactly had he trod in those 54 years? Iowa, Los Angeles, other places? Few spots that I can identify and occupy with assurance.
So it is here, on these steps leading to those doors at this church on this campus that I am absolutely certain that he and I are occupying precisely the same space on the planet, separated only by 115 years and two lifetimes.
Thank you for accompanying me on this little journey.
Photo is of the author’s father, Maurice. Taken in 1907.
Ed Breen has been an Indiana journalist for 50 years. He was a reporter, photographer and editor at the Marion Chronicle Tribune from 1966-1995, when he became Assistant Managing Editor of the Journal Gazette newspaper in Fort Wayne.