If you’re fightin’, you’re not winnin’
In 1974, during my sophomore year at Notre Dame, two of my classmates got fed up with the rules and moved off-campus.
That left a room open a few doors down from me in Flanner Hall. The two young men who moved in couldn’t have been any less alike.
One was Tony Novakov, from Cincinnati. He was a loud, confident, broad-shouldered linebacker whose older brother, Dan, had been the starting center on the 1970 and 1971 Notre Dame teams.
The other newcomer, from Omaha, seemed terminally shy. He didn’t come to our parties, didn’t join us at dinnertime in the North Dining Hall, didn’t play on our intramural sports teams, and didn’t join in on the shouting matches in the Flanner hallways.
In those days, you were considered the top dog if you had the answer first and shouted it the loudest. And we argued constantly – Beatles versus Stones, Nixon vs. McGovern, Budweiser vs. Miller, Grace Slick vs. Mary Travers.
The shy guy, if he was around at all, never spoke up. He would just listen to everything everyone else said. He was a philosophy major. We figured he was the least likely person to ever be in charge of anything.
So, it took me quite a while to figure out how that guy — quiet John Ignatius Jenkins — became president of the University of Notre Dame 30 years later.
I had not seen Father John in all those years. He resembled the person I knew from Flanner Hall. I began to see him differently, though, as he began running into the inevitable headwinds on campus.
One of those times was when the university invited Barack Obama to speak at the Class of 2009’s commencement. Obama was a popular president – he even carried Indiana in the 2008 election – but there was a loud outcry from Notre Dame’s conservative faction. How dare we invite Obama, who supports women’s rights to choose an abortion!
Some 90,000 people signed a petition in protest. The local bishop announced he would boycott the ceremony. I waited. How would quiet Johnny Jenkins get himself out of this jam?
Finally, he spoke up. He said the invitation did not imply that the university sided with Obama on every issue. “We see his visit as a basis for further engagement,” he told the student newspaper. He added, “You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade.”
A similar outcry occurred eight years later when Vice President Mike Pence, an outspoken opponent of women’s right to choose, was invited. After observing the hate-filled campaign that brought Pence and Donald Trump to the White House, I was among those questioning that invitation.
And in his introduction remarks on that commencement day, Father Jenkins had the answer: “We must speak the truth we know and challenge the injustice we see. But we must also listen to those who disagree, care for the bonds that join us together and find ways to build a society where all can flourish, even the people who don’t look like us, think like us, or vote with us.”
That was when I understood the lesson that John had learned while listening to those loud arguments in the dormitory hallway. The winner is the person who listens.
This makes me think of Jackie Walorski, who served as this area’s representative in Congress from 2013 until her death in an auto accident five months ago. I never voted for her.
One of her egregious actions in Congress was a 2017 hug to the National Rifle Association, supporting a bill that gave people diagnosed as mentally ill the right to carry loaded weapons. My preference would have been to give them early access to therapy and treatment, but she chose AR-15s instead.
As the decade passed, I cringed whenever I saw her. Every message was about fighting. She was fighting for our jobs and our guns. She was fighting to build a border wall, fighting to protect the unborn innocents, to repeal Obamacare.
She had all her answers. She never listened to people like me.
And during this time, I became hypersensitive to the word “fight.” Every candidate, it seemed, wanted to fight for me – as president, senator or congressman, as governor, as city councilman, as school board member. I wanted to scream, “Please stop fighting and listen to each other.”
Then I started seeing advertising spots during Notre Dame football games. The ad campaign was “What Would You Fight For?”
The answers were admirable things like renewable energy, safe water and business ethics. But I couldn’t get past this thought: Why must we fight for renewable energy? Can’t we just work together, listen to ideas from others and share the good results? The campaign should be “What Should We Share?”
Father Jenkins is my age, 68, and deserves some rest after his 20 years as Notre Dame’s president. He knows we aren’t in an either-or world. We could enjoy the Beatles and the Stones, Bud and Miller beer, Grace Slick and Mary Travers. Both sides are OK. There are no reasons for harsh words.
His legacy could be to take the Fight out of the Fightin’ Irish. We could be the Listenin’ Irish or the Sharin’ Irish. And it shouldn’t be just the Irish, should it? All of us deserve to be heard and to be included.
If John is reading this, how about the Notre Dame Listenin’ Humankind?
I’m asking quietly. Please give it some thought.