Rides are short but chats rewarding at ND reunion

I could feel the bones slide as they moved to new places in my hand.

I don’t know if I winced. I do know that my toes seemed to swell.

I was a shuttle driver last week at the Notre Dame Alumni Reunion. My job that day was to pick up new arrivals at the parking lot and take them to the visitor center to register. 

This passenger extended his hand in greeting. When I extended mine, I received the firmest handshake in my 67 years.

It’s about a five-minute ride from the lot to the visitor center. My passenger told me he was looking forward to meeting new people for his first real time on campus in 30 years. He said he met few people here during his student years because he was an introvert. Now he was a changed man.

I nodded and said I was, too. That’s the reason I joined the student newspaper. If I was going to be a reporter, I would have to learn to talk to strangers. It changed my life, I said. What did it for him?

“Football,” he said, in a sharp, clear Caribbean accent. “Closed mouth ain’t fed.”

My five minutes with him were ending. He was a towering figure, muscular. Some people would say his body was sculpted. His was more like a computer design. I asked his name. “Devon McDonald,” he said. “From the ’92 team.”

Later, at home, I did the google work. Devon was a 6-foot-5, 240-pound linebacker, a co-captain, and earned honorable-mention All-America honors in 1992. He played four seasons in the NFL with the Colts and Cardinals. Now he is an ordained minister, active with Sports World Ministries.

At the visitor center, I lifted his suitcase out of the van and handed it to him. He grabbed it with his left hand and extended his right. The second handshake was as firm as the first, and I knew I wouldn’t forget Devon McDonald.

This was my 10th go-around as a reunion shuttle driver. I have had thousands of riders crawl in and out of my vans. Some have left big marks on me in completely different ways. 

A few years back, I remember telling two riders that I had just met Terry Hanratty, a three-year superstar quarterback from the mid-1960s. “Yeah,” the one guy replied. “I own two shopping malls and this guy,” pointing to his friend, “is a heart surgeon.”

Superstars on different fields. So now I think of those two guys whenever a former football player gets in my van.

About three hours after I met Devon, I took a radio call to pick up a passenger at Cavanaugh Hall and take him to the South Dining Hall. The man who lurched at me in the dark from behind Cavanaugh seemed to be padded from head to toe, like a hockey goalie without a mask.

As it turns out, he was Alex Montoya. He was walking on two prosthetic legs and swinging two prosthetic arms. Just like Devon, he was glad to be back on campus.

I felt connected with Alex. A dozen years ago, I helped write a book by Brett Eastburn, a local man who was born without arms and legs. I mentioned my experience with Brett to draw details from Alex, who said his own birth defects were a result of his mother being prescribed Thalidomide in Colombia when she was pregnant.

His journey — like Devon’s and Brett’s, and mine, I suppose — has been enriched because of the ways he’s learned to overcome obstacles. He graduated from Notre Dame and the University of San Francisco before he became a writer, writing coach and motivational speaker. 

Odd that we met like this, I said. “Nothing without a reason,” Alex said.

I drive slow, but our ride together went too fast. We were somewhere in the middle of a story when we reached the dining hall. I walked with him to the door, made sure he was in the right place and reached out my hand. He tapped me with his hook, and off he went.

This is how the weekend goes. A woman needs a ride to McKenna Hall. In our brief moments together, we find out we both knew Mary Collins, a friend from the South Bend Tribune who was murdered in 1980. A man needs a ride back to the parking lot. It turns out one of his best friends was Dale Cotter, my first editor at the Tribune. As we talk, we’re both teetering between happy and sad, remembering this person who affected us both.

With others I listen, and then I reply with what I know about the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, the fried bologna sandwiches in Toledo, the quaint library in Logansport, the Irish restaurant in Elkhart and the record store in Goshen. I draw a blank on Kansas.

A late arriver needs to get to Dunne Hall. He was flying from Seattle when his connecting flight from Detroit was delayed. I mention my trip to Seattle in 1998, and we realize that he was the surgeon who performed the liver transplant on my friend, Jim Waszak, who unfortunately did not survive.

Five times during the weekend, I have Joe O’Brien from Alliance, Ohio, in my van. It becomes a ritual for us. We put his walker in the back, he slides slowly into the passenger’s side, I close his door and walk around to the driver’s seat.

The stories begin from his student days as a member of the Class of 1952. He tells of family members affected by World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and about the wrestlers he met as a high school coach. I know about his wife, who passed away long ago, and the woman friend who spends time with him because she needs to share thoughts when no one else is around to listen.

He drops a pen in the lobby at Baumer Hall. He taps me on the shoulder so I don’t pick it up. He bends slowly and I hear him say softly, “God, thank you,” when the pencil is back in his hand. 

“I used to say, ‘God something else’ before, whenever I made a mistake,” Joe says. “Now I know it’s a blessing that I can still do things for myself. So, it’s, ‘God, thank you’.”

These reunions come around every June and last four or five days. The 12-hour shifts in the shuttle seem long, but our time together is remarkably short. 

So precious. 

If we listen and we’re lucky, we are touched in these times in so many different ways.