University of Notre Dame

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

G.K. Chesterton at Notre Dame

One of Father O'Donnell's first interests upon taking office was to secure some outstanding figures who, if not permanently added to the faculty, might, as visiting lecturers, add prestige to the University. . . . The President of the University . . . got in touch with Mr. Robert Sencourt, a friend of Mr. Chesterton's, and asked him to approach the English controversialist and ask him if he would come to Notre Dame for a period of six weeks, preferably in the spring of 1930, to give two series of lectures, one on some phase of English letters, the other on English history. For these series of lectures, the University was prepared to offer $5000 and expenses from England to Notre Dame and return.

Chesterton signified, through Mr. Sencourt, that the proposal was agreeable to him, but only on condition that Mrs. Chesterton should accompany him. . . . Miss Dorothy Collins, Chesterton's secretary, wrote on June 21, 1929, to say that the arrangements agreed to by Father O'Donnell were satisfactory and that they would present themselves at the University in the spring of 1930. But around Christmas time, 1929, Mr. Chesterton was taken ill. In February, 1930, his secretary wrote saying the visit would have to be postponed until autumn.

. . .

The Chesterton party arrived at Notre Dame on the evening of October 4th, 1930. The lectures began on the following Monday. On Friday, the 10th, in the evening, the stadium was solemnly dedicated. Navy had come on for the dedicatory game, and Father O'Donnell was busy with them. He had told Johnny Mangan, the University chauffeur, to look after the Chestertons, and to see that they got into the stadium and that Mr. Chesterton had a seat on the platform from which the speeches were to be made, There were about twenty thousand people present, and when the students saw the magnificent bulk of Chesterton going toward the platform, they cheered wildly: "He's a man! Who's a man? He's a Notre Dame man!" Chesterton turned nervously to Mangan, saying: "My, they're angry!" "Angry!" exclaimed Johnny, "golly man, they're cheerin' you!" Whereat Chesterton began such a fit of laughing and sputtering as almost to choke himself.

It was a wild autumn. in the midst of all the excitement caused by another championship team and the visit of Chesterton, the campus had a hard time with its dignity. Chesterton's lectures were very well attended. The students found them without much order, but always entertaining. And there was the man himself, nearly three hundred pounds of him, who, thinking of some delicious aside, would start to chuckle and so convulse the audience before he had said what he had to say, that they were in a constant state of good nature. The biggest surprise of all was that from such a mountain of brawn and beam, there should come only a thin trickle of sound. It was a constant strain to listen to him, but well worth the effort. When he returned after a few days in Canada (it was the time of Prohibition), he apologized that his voice should not have been in a better condition. He later spoke of his lectures in a very contrite fashion, saying they had been "inflicted on people who had never done me any harm. . . . An agonizing effort to be fair to the subtleties of the evolutionary controversy in addressing the students of Notre Dame . . . of which no record remains except that one student wrote in the middle of his blank note-book: 'Darwin did a lot of harm'."

Students used to gather at the west door of Washington Hall before the lecture just to see Chesterton unloaded from Johnny Mangan's limousine. It was an operation that took no little time and effort. The door would open, and a great black mass of broadcloth cape would begin to wiggle and then back forth from the door of the car. There were long moments of silent suspense, after which one would not have been surprised to hear the kind of cheer that rises at the successful launching of a battleship. One evening, Father O'Donnell invited the entire faculty to meet the Chestertons at a buffet supper. Chesterton sat there, balancing the delicate tea things on his capacious lap -- on which you could have set a seven-course banquet -- being polite to the little groups which approached him.

When the series of lectures was over, a special convocation of the faculty and students was held on the afternoon of November 5th, 1930, to honor Chesterton by conferring upon him the Doctorate of Laws.