University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
Notre Dame -- One Hundred Years / by Arthur J. Hope, C.S.C.

Chapter XXVIII

CHARLES LEO O'DONNELL, the twelfth president of the University of Notre Dame, was born at Greenfield, Indiana, on November 15, 1884. He was the youngest of six children. It was from Donegal that both his parents, Neil and Mary O'Donnell, had come to America. Mary Gallagher O'Donnell was born in the little fishing village of Killybegs, and Neil O'Donnell was a native of Ardara, but seven miles distant. Years later, Charles O'Donnell wrote of his parents:

When Charles was ready to go to school, the O'Donnell family moved from Greenfield to Kokomo, and there, under the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the young lad entered the parochial school. The Sisters gave excellent accounts of his studies and deportment. He was earnest and serious and it was not long before the pastor, Father Francis Lordeman, knew there was something especially fine about Charles. Although the boy loved fun and games and did his share of roughhousing, there were moments in which his modest piety led Father Lordeman to feel that the boy was perhaps destined for the altar. It was not long before the priest learned that the same thought was growing in the mind of the boy.

In 1899, Charles had completed his studies at the parochial school. Father Lordeman suggested that he write to the head of the seminary at Notre Dame, asking for admission as a candidate for the priesthood in the Congregation of Holy Cross. Father Cavanaugh answered in his usual tender fashion:

Father Lordeman brought young O'Donnell to Notre Dame and presented him to Father Cavanaugh. It was the good fortune of O'Donnell that his first formative years were spent under Father Cavanaugh. As it developed, Charles O'Donnell was to become a writer of real distinction, and at that time Notre Dame had no better judge of good literature, and the making of good literature, than Father John Cavanaugh.

From Father Cavanaugh's conferences and conversations, Charles O'Donnell saw the glorious necessity of becoming not only a good priest, but a learned one. Throughout his studies he kept in mind that he must prepare himself in a thorough manner for his future teaching days. He never forgot Father Cavanaugh's injunction that "good teaching is really a sort of sacramental action, a communication of spirit." O'Donnell was fortunate in that opportunities for a more complete education would be afforded him than had been afforded to the young priests of Cavanaugh's time. In rhetoric and literature Charles O'Donnell showed marked aptitude, and as he began to write, his style displayed vigor and grace. Above all, he had the happy faculty of restraining his speech until he had found the word which really expressed his thought. His style was not as fluid as Father Cavanaugh's, but it was much more exact, and although he had, indeed, a native talent for good writing, he labored and sweated in his task.

At the end of his freshman year in college, in 1903, he went to the Novitiate to put on the clerical garb of a seminarian. After a year's time, he returned to Holy Cross Seminary to complete his college course. The well-filled note-books he has left attest to his avidity and good-taste in literature. He delighted particularly in the visiting celebrities who lectured in Washington Hall, William Howard Taft, Cardinal Gasquet, Henry James, Douglas Hyde, Seumas MacManus. He himself was doing considerable writing, and toward the middle of his junior year was chosen as one of the editors of the Scholastic. Moreover, he was an excellent debater, with splendid powers in rebuttal. His graduating class was that of 1906. The students had, for some time, entertained the idea of editing a year-book. It was the fashion at most universities, so why not at Notre Dame? Around New Year's, 1906, it was decided to go ahead with the idea, and young O'Donnell was chosen to be the editor-in-chief of the first Dome. It was not only a very fine book, but it more than paid for itself. The editors, after all the 1500 copies were sold, were able to hand the President of the University a check for $500, a partial payment for a new hall on the campus!

Charles O'Donnell was chosen to compose and read the class poem at the graduating exercises. That was not all. Bishop Alerding pinned on his breast the Quan Medal, the award given to the senior having the best record in the Classical Courses, as well as the Meehan Medal for the best English essay. It made Neil and Mary O'Donnell, sitting in the audience, very happy. They were happier still when Charley told them that he was going to give the medals to the Novitiate, where they were collecting gold for a new chalice.

In the fall of 1906 Charles O'Donnell entered Holy Cross College at Washington. There he would not only study his theology, but would take classes at the Catholic University leading to his specialty, English literature. Around one figure of English letters, O'Donnell had built considerable interest. That was Francis Thompson. it had been Father Thomas Crumley, when O'Donnell was still an undergraduate at Notre Dame, who had introduced him to the works of Thompson. In Washington, this interest still continued, and O'Donnell wrote to all the likely people in England, particularly to the Meynells, to learn more about the life of the unfortunate English poet.

Early in 1909, Father Morrissey, the Provincial, indicated that he desired O'Donnell to work for his doctorate. With his superior's permission, he passed the summer of 1909 at Harvard, taking a good "stiff course in Anglo-Saxon," a requisite for the doctorate in English. When it came to writing his thesis, after he had returned to Washington, he once more settled on his earlier favorite, and produced "A study of the Prose Works of Francis Thompson." In 1910 the Catholic University awarded him his doctorate, and he then returned to Notre Dame where he was ordained a priest on the 24th of June.

For two years Father O'Donnell resided in one of the residence halls on the campus. Study and intellectual pursuits were so much a part of his life that he was relieved of the distractions attendant upon prefecting, and was asked to reside in the comparative quiet of the Presbytery and assist Father Hudson in editing The Ave Maria. Particularly in the field of poetry, his judgment was trusted. His own verse, especially that which touched on religious subjects, manifested deep theological knowledge, a delving into the mysteries of faith, from which he extracted a brilliant beauty clothed in striking simplicity. As a teacher he was orderly, masterful and inspiring. His cold, appraising eye, now and then augmented by a phrase of icy irony, was sufficient to maintain strict discipline. For the talented, he had a warm and cordial sympathy. English "C" under Charles O'Donnell was something to remember.

When the priests of the University were asked to volunteer as chaplains in 1917, Father O'Donnell's name was one of the first on the list. In January, 1918, clad in his chaplain's uniform, Charles O'Donnell said goodbye to his students and his faculty friends. By March he was writing from France:

A month later, he writes to Father Cavanaugh:

To Brother Alphonsus, the rector of Brownson Hall, who had shown Father O'Donnell the charm of bird lore at Notre Dame, he wrote the same month:

And toward the end of April, he described to Father Carrico the incidents of one of his Sundays:

During the summer of 1918 Father O'Donnell was assigned as chaplain to the 332nd Infantry, and was the first American Catholic chaplain to enter Italy with the United States forces. In France Father O'Donnell had not seen nearly as much action as had Fathers Walsh and Davis. And in Italy, the fighting was even more desultory. It was only a short time after his arrival at the Italian front that Austria sued for peace. After the armistice, Father O'Donnell went down to Rome with some of his regiment. Woodrow Wilson was there, and he hoped to get a sight of him, and obtain an audience with the Pope. All but the most necessary of audiences had been cancelled by the Vatican, although Father O'Donnell did manage to see Benedict XV at the public function for the beatification of Anna Maria Taigi.[7]

Returning to the Italo-Austrian front, he managed to visit a number of Notre Dame students. He wrote that he must shortly embark for Montenegro to assemble some of the soldiers of his regiment preparatory to embarking for America.[8] Toward the end of February, 1919, he was in Genoa, hoping soon to set sail for home.[9] By mid-April he was in New York. And by the end of the month it was announced in the Scholastic that Charles O'Donnell had come back to Notre Dame.[10]

In the summner of 1920 the General Chapter of the Congregation of Holy Cross named Father O'Donnell as Provincial of the United States Province. In such a position, he was the superior of the President of Notre Dame and was called upon constantly to assist in the development of the University. He was, comparatively speaking, a young man for the post of Provincial. His earnestness and good will were always apparent and he did what he could to promote the best interests of the University over which he was later to preside. In 1926, when he relinquished the provincialship, he was named First-Assistant to the Superior General, and in 1928, saw himself elected to the presidency of the University.

After the sage administration of Father Walsh, Father O'Donnell did not find himself immediately confronted with many pressing problems. The administrations of Father Burns and Father Walsh had given direction and vigor to whomsoever was to follow them. It is to Father O'Donnell's credit that he perceived the academic vision of Father Burns, and the practical provisions that were characteristic of Father Walsh's regime. Both were carried out and brought to further fruition.

Father Walsh had begun the "new Campus" by the erection of the Dining Halls. It remained for Father O'Donnell to complete this new and beautiful plan. He did so with a touch lavish and artistic. The cry to erect a stadium was both earnest and constant. Father Walsh, in his wise judgment, had said: "No stadium, until proper housing facilities are provided on the campus." In 1929, Father O'Donnell considered the time ripe for the erection of a stadium. After mature deliberation, work on the stadium was begun. The Osborn Engineering Company of Cleveland, which had previously erected twenty similar structures, offered the best design. It called for a structure 670 feet by 480 feet, in red brick with lime stone trim, designed solely for football contests, seating 54,400 spectators. Two hundred and forty-four boxes, each seating six persons, were provided in front of the side sections. These boxes were sold to friends of Notre Dame at from $1250 to $3000, securing for the donors the best seats at all Notre Dame football contests for the ensuing ten years. The sale of these boxes would underwrite the initial expense in the erection of the stadium. The response was immediate and generous. Excavation was begun in the summer of 1929, and by the fall of 1930 the stadium was ready for occupation. The first game played in the stadium was against Southern Methodist University, on October 4th. The expert passing of the Texas aggregation gave Notre Dame some serious moments. Notre Dame finally won the game, 20-14. On the following Saturday, October 11th, Navy came to Notre Dame for the dedication game. On the previous evening, about 20,000 persons gathered in the stadium, and heard Rockne, Father O'Donnell, and Rear Admiral S.S. Robison, superintendent of the Naval Academy, speak solemn words of dedicatory calibre. The next day was as hot as a day in midsummer. The stadium was packed for the occasion. Notre Dame won, 26-2."

Sacred Heart Church, the campus chapel, had undergone no serious renovation since its completion in 1888. The lighting system was antiquated, Gregori's frescoes had become clouded, and there were cracks in the walls. Mr. Wilfred E. Anthony, a New York architect, was asked to draw up plans for a renovation of the church. Father Lawrence Broughal was the University advisor on this occasion. The restoration was completed in 1931 and was highly satisfactory to everyone. In the church tower was placed a new automatic clock. The chimes were synchronized in such a fashion that the quarter hour would be indicated by a stroke of the bells. At stated intervals, a few bars of some Catholic hymn would be heard on the chimes. A few minutes after ten each night "Taps" would be sounded in the tower.

* * *

Notre Dame's college of Law had, for some time, been occupying cramped quarters in what had been formerly Chemistry Hall. In 1929 Father O'Donnell asked Maginnis and Walsh, Boston architects, for a design for a new law building. They submitted a design for a very beautiful, graceful structure, collegiate Gothic in character, to cost in the neighborhood of $400,000. Work on the new building was begun in the fall of 1929. When the building was completed in the early fall of 1930, Notre Dame had a truly beautiful law building. It was three stories high, built of pressed brick, and lavishly decorated with Indiana limestone. At the southwest corner rose a handsome tower, with gracefully formed windows, and an attractive stone portico. Inside, on the lower floor, was a large conference room, so designed as to accommodate four or five hundred. There was also a moot court. An impressive grand staircase rose from the front to the library and reading room on the second floor. This beautiful room, 98 feet by 51, has two lines of stone columns which stipport arches that carry the vaulted ceiling ribbed with oak. On October 7th, 1930, Cardinal Hayes of New York came to bless solemnly and dedicate the new structure.

On November 8, 1930, Father O'Donnell received a letter from Edward Nash Hurley, Chairman of the United States Shipping Board during the previous war, and L~tare Medalist of 1926. The first paragraph of the letter read as follows:

Mr. Hurley's gift was welcome indeed. He requested that Graham of Chicago should be retained as architect, and this was done. A two-story structure, utilizing the same materials employed in the law building, and constructed in the form of an "F," rose in the spring of 1931. The building contains classrooms, accounting rooms and offices. In the center of the building is a memorial hall, two stories in height. Therein is mounted, in a pit, an eight foot aluminum globe, upon which is painted a map of the world. The revolving globe is raised and lowered by means or a hydraulic lift. On three sides of the hall are large cases in which are mounted trade maps of the various continents. Outside, on the tower, is a copper ship in full sail. On May 17, 1932, Mr. Hurley came, with other members of the Board of Lay Trustees, for the presentation and dedication of his gift.

There was still need for more dormitory buildings. On March 2, 1931, ground was broken for Alumni and Dillon Halls. Again, Maginnis and Walsh of Boston were the architects. The two new halls were to cost $950,000. They were to be by far the most pretentious of the residence halls. It was Father O'Donnell's dream that these new Gothic structures should combine all the beauty of medieval times with the practical necessities of the day. Together these halls house about six hundred students. They were so much more elegant than Howard, Morrissey and Lyons Halls, which had been dubbed "the Gold Coast," that the students quickly applied to them the epithet of "Platinum Coast." The inscriptions, the niches, the statuettes and figurines and plaques which decorate the exterior of these halls merit careful study. Alumni and Dillon Halls were opened to the students in the fall of 1931.

In the spring of that same year, 1931, the University was glad to announce a $300,000 gift from a former alumnus, John F. Cushing. When he came to Notre Dame as a student in the first decade of the century, John Cushing was a poor boy. At the close of the school year in 1905, when Father Morrissey was president, John called on Father Morrissey to make what was a sad announcement. He said that, due to lack of funds, it would be impossible to return to Notre Dame the following year. Father Morrissey, knowing John Cushing's fine record as a student, said that he was to return anyhow; that he was not to bother his head about finances; that the University would see to it that he got his degree. Father Morrissey told him that he felt sure he would repay the University in his own good time. So John came back and was graduated a civil engineer in the class of 1906, as a classmate of Father Charles O'Donnell. In his letter to Father O'Donnell, Mr. Cushing wrote:

The John F. Cushing Hall of Engineering was designed by Francis Kervick, head of the architectural department of the University. It was to be erected adjacent to the new Law Building, and was to conform, both in materials and in structure, to the newer buildings we have mentioned. The building was designed in three sections: the first, containing class and drafting rooms, is three stories in height; the second, for various laboratories and machine shops, is two stories high. Between the two sections is a single floor court with various laboratories and an assembly room seating about six hundred persons.

This munificent gift is all the mote remarkable when we consider the fact that when Mr. Cushing made it, he was not a wealthy man. In fact, when John Cushing died in an airplane crash in October, 1935, there was very little left of his fortune with which to provide for his large family. It is true, he would undoubtedly have increased his wealth had he lived. But no one knew better than John Cushing the precarious nature of human life, and the fact that he made the gift when he did, running the risk of leaving his family without great wealth, augments the generous character of the man and lends lustre to his delicate conscience. Father Morrissey~s confidence in John Cushing was well justified.

The erection of so many new buildings made apparent the inadequacy of the old heating plant. Accordingly, in the fall of 1931, Father O'Donnell, on the advice of Father Steiner, requested Albert Kahn of Detroit to draw up plans for a new steam and water pumping plant. It was determined to place this functional building near St. Joseph's Lake, some distance from the site of the old heating plant. The building, with all its equipment, cost a quarter of a million dollars. The day before Christmas, 1931, the first of the new boilers, unpoetically but realistically, was fired by Father O'Donnell.[14]

This vast building program, entailing the construction of eight large projects and costing in the neighborhood of $2,800,000, sets Father O'Donnell apart as one of the great builders of Notre Dame. It was Father O'Donnell's good fortune that he was able to find the money for such a tremendous expansion. Others, notably Father Walsh, had paved the way. Indeed, the sacrifices and vision of hundreds of religious, saving their pittance and contributing their mite, may all be said to have made such expansion possible.

To Father O'Donnell is also attributable the establishment of a new seal or coat-of-arms. The old seal of the University was hardly distinguishable from that of the Congregation of Holy Cross, and Father O'Donnell felt the University should have something more distinctive of her traditions and history. He asked Pierre de Chaignon la Rose of Harvard University to submit drawings. By the beginning of 1931 Mr. La Rose sent on, in color, his idea of appropriate armorial bearings. It consisted of a shield with a clear blue field and cross of gold -- these colors being those of the Blessed Virgin, to whom Notre Dame was dedicated. At the base of the shield are two wavy lines of silver and above them, to the left, is a silver star, another symbol of the Virgin, Star of the Sea. The waves indicate part of the University title "a lacu," by the lake. The cross symbolizes the Congregation of Holy Cross, the religious community that founded and conducts the University. In front of the cross is an open book, representing the University as an institution of learning; upon the book are written the words "Vita, Dulcedo, Spes," words taken from the "Salve Regina," again symbolizing the dedication of all the University's activities to the Mother of God.[15]

As may be imagined from Father O'Donnell's program of expansion, the enrollment was steadily on the increase, in spite of the fact that a serious economic depression was in progress. Just as the preparatory department had been dropped under Father Burns, it was now thought better to get rid of the Minims. In the summer of 1929 the Minims were sent home, never to return as minims. It was not easy to see them go. A great deal of sentiment had attached itself to this institution on which Father Sorin had looked with so much fervor. A certain group favored the retention of the Minims as a sort of experimental school, a laboratory for the testing of the newer educational schemes and theories. But it was pointed out that St. Edward's Hall, the home of the Minims, could be renovated during the summer and made ready for two hundred college men. St. Edward's was opened to college men in September, 1929.[16]

There had been a lot of talk about Notre Dame's wealth, particularly of the money that came to her through football. Indeed, the prosperous aspect of the campus, the beautiful buildings and the carefully kept grounds, may have furthered this persuasion of the general public. In January, 1930, Father O'Donnell opened the books to the curious and let them have a good look at the financial situation of the University. He first of all pointed out that, among schools of her size, Notre Dame's endowment was one of the lowest in the country -- merely a little over a million dollars. He indicated the figures for the year 1928-1929. Money received from tuition fees was little over half a million dollars ($590,106.26), while the total instructional expenses for the year were nearly a million dollars ($922,466.70). The income from the endowment, which could be used only for the salaries of lay professors, yielded that year $62,508.10, whereas the total salaries for lay professors was $272,796.42, the endowment yielding a little less than one-fourth of the total cost of the lay professors. Father O'Donnell pointed out that the total tuition fees plus the income from endowment paid only about 70% of the total instructional expenses. It was clear to anyone who could read figures that Notre Dame's "football money" was immensely needed to take care of the expenses of the University, and that the University was not getting rich on it.[17]

Notre Dame's friends and alumni have, during these past hundred years, donated a large number of scholarships. These benefactions have aided not only deserving students but also the University itself. There was a time when University funds could be invested at five or six percent interest. Of late years that condition no longer prevails. Some of the endowments for scholarships, made in contractual form, require the University to furnish the complete expenses of students, and often result at present in financial loss to the University. Father O'Donnell pointed out[18] that the University itself, through student employment, had contributed the year previous (1927-1928) $170,000 to needy students. At the usual capital investment then in force, that sum represented a principal of nearly three and one-half million dollars.

In 1930, a public announcement was made concerning a method for obtaining greater endowment. It was called "Living Endowment." It was a plan whereby the living alumni would agree to give a certain amount of money each year to the University for the needs of the school. The scheme was not new. It had been tried at several institutions, in some of them with outstanding success. Frank Hayes, '14, had made a special study of the method as employed at Dartmouth and Northwestern.

In this connection, it was pointed out that all Notre Dame graduates, if not in justice, at least in equity, really had a debt to Notre Dame. The tuition fees never covered the actual cost of an education at Notre Dame. A conservative estimate calculated the difference between the actual cost and what was actually paid at one thousand dollars per capita. That is, each student who had graduated from Notre Dame actually cost the University one thousand dollars more than he had paid. It was estimated that, since there were five thousand graduates of Notre Dame, the total cost to Notre Dame had been in the neighborhood of five million dollars. The alumni, who had been the principal beneficiaries of such generosity, were asked, through "living endowment," to remember this debt.[20]

Frank Hayes wrote that although the plan as adopted by Dartmouth had been in operation only a dozen years, and although the first year it yielded but five thousand dollars, at the end of the twelfth year the sum collected was $125,000, representing the equivalent of interest on paid endowment of two and one half million dollars. Jim Hope, '11, was the first to send in his contribution -- a hundred dollars. By May the sum had grown to $1386; by June, $3569; by the end of the year, $5931.50. Subsequently, it developed that this drive for living endowment had been launched at an inauspicious time, for two reasons: the financial depression was affecting the alumni, and secondly, after the death of Knute Rockne, greater interest was taken in the campaign for a "Rockne Memorial" than in the living endowment.

During Father O'Donnell's six years as president, there were some notable gifts in the way of scholarships and fellowships. In the fall of 1928 Mrs. Leonard N. Anson, and her two children, George Anson and Mrs. Mae Anson Donoghue, of Merrill, Wisconsin, gave $100,000 for four scholarships in perpetuity to be awarded to graduates of a high school in Merrill or its environs. The scholarships were given as a memorial for the late husband of Mrs. Anson.

Mr. Matthew J. Carney, who had previously established two scholarships at the University, added another gift in 1929. He offered the sum of $25,000 for two scholarships, the interest of which was to take care of two students from Paducah, Kentucky. It was required that this gift was to serve the specified purpose of fifty years, after which time, the principal and any accrued interest would become the property of the University without restriction.

In November, 1928, from the estate of Mr. P. C. Burns, of Chicago, came a gift of $25,000, the interest from which was to be devoted to two graduate students in the Department of Electrical Engineering. In connection with this gift, Father O'Donnell said:

Father Nieuwland's work in chemistry was attracting the attention of some of the great industrial companies of the country. Dupont, especially, was interested. In appreciation for Father Nieuwland's spirit of research and important discoveries, the Duponts have made annual "grants" to the University for the Department of Chemistry. These grants further the work of certain graduate students.

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