Wisdom doesn’t need to pass you by

A few years back, I saw an older man on a park bench and knew I had to stop for a talk.

I was shuttling alumni for Notre Dame’s annual reunion. Three women who had graduated 10 years earlier were in my van, and none of them knew who that old man was.

“This will only take a couple minutes,” I said, “but this is someone you should meet.”

He was Dr. Emil T. Hofman. During my time on campus, from 1972 to 1976, everyone knew him. No person at Notre Dame inspired as much fear as he did.

Dr. Hofman taught freshman chemistry. If you wanted to become a doctor or a chemical engineer, you had to do well in his class. Of 12 freshmen in my section of Flanner Hall, 10 were pre-med students. Dr. Hofman, with his steely stare, turned all 10 into lawyers and businessmen instead.

He was diabolical with the make-or-break quizzes he gave every Friday. Each quiz – everyone called them an Emil or an Emil T — had seven questions. If you scored five or less, it was a sign that you were at a crossroads: Devote your entire time henceforth to chemistry or start looking for a different major.

I had a different reason for wanting these women to meet him. Dr. Hofman was one of the unsung heroes during those rocky years when Notre Dame ceased being an all-male institution.

Notre Dame created a department called the Freshman Year of Studies and put Dr. Hofman at its helm. His main mission was to prevent coeducation from failing, and he spent a lot of time making sure that all 350 of the first women felt that Notre Dame truly was their new home. 

I told this to my three passengers as we approached. And even 40-some years after I first met him, there was some hesitation in my voice when I said, “Excuse me, Dr. Hofman.”

The three alums introduced themselves, and Dr. Hofman asked them a few questions before he turned to me. “Were you in my class?” he asked.

“No. I was in Arts & Letters. But I did take one of your quizzes. My roommate had to leave early for a fall break and paid me $5 to sit in for him.”

“And how did that go?”

I told him that I applied logic and luck to get three of the seven right. It was worth the $5 to Joe that he didn’t get charged with an absence and get a zero on the quiz. 

“And your friend, Joe. Did he get into medical school?”

“Well, he’s had a happy career as a banker.”

Dr. Hofman and I shared a laugh. He was close to 90 and he looked tired. We said our goodbyes and he stayed on the bench as we went back to the van. He died a year or so later, and I’m glad I remember him the way I do instead of the way I once did.

I’ve been one of those people who avoided talking to older people. We think their decline somehow is contagious. But over the years, I’ve been grateful for final conversations with former teachers from LaSalle High School, with Mishawaka attorney Wyatt Mick and with old neighbors, as well as an elevator conversation I had with Father Hesburgh. I felt enriched each time.

Then there was this other time I was finishing an interview for a news story, and one of the ladies asked if I worked with Entee Shine. It was an odd question. Entee, in his 70s, had recently become a security guard at the Tribune. He sat all day behind a desk, speaking in a low growl as he checked employee IDs.

The lady had gone to Central High School with Entee in the late 1940s. Her entire community had beamed with pride when he was chosen to be the first Black basketball player at Notre Dame.

Entee? Really? How did I not know this?

When I got back to the office, I asked Entee why he had never told me that he was such a superstar. “I suppose I was waiting for you to ask,” he said, chuckling.

It became a relationship for me. Some evenings I would get home 30 minutes late because I had stopped at the security desk to hear more of his story. 

Entee played football at Notre Dame as a freshman in 1950 and basketball as a sophomore in 1951. His had not been an easy life. He had had too high an opinion of his skills, and he didn’t feel appreciated enough at Notre Dame. He dropped out and tried Tennessee State, a historically Black university, before he joined the Army.

Entee had gotten it into his head that racism was behind every setback in his life. He was smart but wasn’t a good student because he didn’t think he needed to be. Football and basketball had come so easily to him that he didn’t like coaches barking at him. He would quit.

After the Army, he tried out with the Los Angeles Rams, but the money then wasn’t enough to motivate him. He returned to South Bend and became a local legend in area basketball leagues. He got steady jobs, got married, had children and eventually became an old man.

In his heyday, there were few Black athletes who received much acclaim, and they often ended up in the same clubs, the same restaurants. And if you traveled much, there weren’t a lot of hotels for people like him. Often, a relative or someone else in your community knew someone in that other city you were visiting. They would find you a bed.

He knew everybody. “Hank Aaron?” I asked one day. “Sure, I knew Henry,” Entee said. He had stayed with Aaron’s aunt in Los Angeles when he was trying out with the Rams. He and Henry practiced chipping golf balls together in the aunt’s backyard.

His stories never went past the matter-of-fact stage. He didn’t brag. He didn’t bring up his high school basketball heroics. But in many ways, I understand life a lot better because I heard Entee talk. 

He’s been dead now since 2009, but he left me with a big lesson. Not everyone gets to be a superstar like he was or a legendary professor like Dr. Hofman. When we see an old body filling a chair somewhere, we can’t tell if there’s a story there. 

I suppose we have to ask.