“I’m not as slick as these young guys, but I’m trying to get a date! When do you get out of class tomorrow?”
–12:15, over at DeBartolo.
“I should get out of Mass at about ten after. The priest who does Tuesdays has eye problems – macular degeneration – so it takes him a bit longer to get through the Mass. But Father Malloy said it this morning…zoomzoomzoom. I had him as a freshman, you know. But anyhow, I’ll meet you at the Morris Inn at a little after 12:15.”
Dr. Emil T. Hofman is a Notre Dame legend. He is dean emeritus of Freshman Year of Studies and professor emeritus of chemistry. He has an endowed chair, a scholarship fund, a lecture series, and a teaching award named after him. He taught 32,000 undergraduate students, and he has been at Notre Dame for 62 years.
I started saying hello to Dr. Hofman when I returned to campus this year. One sunny August morning, I saw Emil sitting in his usual spot on a bench and I decided to go introduce myself. My uncle has developed a friendship with him, so I had an excuse to go and say hello.
He recognized my last name right away.
Fishing in his wallet, Hofman withdrew a laminated card. “This is my field office,” he said, gesturing to a plaque on the bench. “I come here every day, hot or cold. I don’t do rain, but I do snow,” he said as he passed me the glossy card, a magazine photo of him bundled on the bench in three feet of snow. “Is that a windshield scraper?” I asked. “Yes, the snow was piled over the top of the bench so I had to clean it off,” he replied.
We talked about RA things and football things and class things and dorm things. Over 62 years, he’s seen everything from National Championship football teams to the first female students at Notre Dame. In addition to a wealth of anecdotes and recollections, Emil has an amazingly far-reaching personal network. Current University President Fr. John Jenkins? Former student. Previous University President Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy? Former student. Former Notre Dame football coach and ESPN commentator Lou Holtz? Close personal friend.
Emil knows everyone, and it seems like nearly everyone walks by his bench. On one visit, a man in a tie introduced himself to me as Greg and lamented that his bike had been stolen on campus for the third time. “Sorry for interrupting! Have a great day,” Greg said with a wave and a smile. “He’s the dean of the College of Science,” Hofman noted.
He knows Father Theodore Hesburgh, too. “I had dinner with him at the Morris Inn to celebrate his 94th birthday in May,” he told me. “I observed my 90th birthday this year. He celebrated.”
Last week, Hofman invited me to join him for lunch at the Morris Inn. I scooted out of class right when the professor finished – I didn’t want to be late for lunch with Emil. As it turned out, I was right on time. The priest with macular degeneration said Mass even more slowly than Hofman had predicted, so he was a few minutes late. Sitting in the lobby of the Morris Inn, I watched as professors met visiting scholars and department chairs greeted donors. After the handshaking and backslapping was through, everyone hurried over to the main dining room of Sorin’s restaurant. That is, everyone but me.
When Hofman arrived, we made our way to the dining room and were immediately seated. He has his own table – the first one through the doors. Everyone who comes to Sorin’s has to walk past him, and the people who know him stop to say hello. We ordered drinks (two iced teas) and entrees (cranberry-pear-gorgonzola grilled cheese for me, plain turkey sandwich with no fries and a cup of butternut squash soup for him) and sat and talked for an hour and a half.
We talked about travel and we talked about dorm life. We talked about post-grad plans and we talked about family. Mostly we talked about Notre Dame. I had been a little worried that lunch would be awkward, but the only challenge for me was getting used to Hofman’s pace. At 90, he’s still completely sharp, but he just moves and speaks more slowly. It takes him a little while to formulate his thoughts, so I had to adjust to longer pauses and quiet stretches in the flow of our conversation.
As I was finishing my sandwich, Hofman said, “I’d forget about the rest of those fries if I were you. You’ll eat dessert, won’t you?” I wasn’t about to say no, so I ditched the fries. Emil’s a big fan of the crème brulee at Sorin’s. Just as the desserts arrived, Fr. Hesburgh walked past our table and right out the door. I gaped after him, thinking that that would be the closest I would ever get to meeting him. Hofman seemed a little surprised that Hesburgh hadn’t stopped by to say hello, but acknowledged that “Ted’s eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
I pulled Hofman’s walker (his “Mercedes”) over and told him I would walk him out to his car. “Well where are you going? Didn’t you say something about going to the JACC?” he asked. I had an appointment with someone in the athletics department that afternoon, so Hofman offered to give me a ride. Again, I wasn’t about to turn him down.
As we left Sorin’s and headed for the front door, I saw a familiar figure silhouetted against the sliding doors. Fr. Hesburgh was waiting for his assistant to pick him up – he hadn’t left! Hofman wheeled over to Hesburgh and said hello, shaking hands. Then it was my turn.
“Father Hesburgh, my name is Amy Holsinger. It’s such a pleasure to meet you.” He shook my hand and said, “Wonderful to meet you too, my dear.”
Hofman was on the move, clearly ready to get to his car, but for a moment, the sliding doors didn’t open. I was standing between two Notre Dame legends. And I was totally awestruck.
Hesburgh reached up and waved his hand near the sensor and the doors opened. Gesturing to Hofman, Hesburgh looked at me and said, “You take good care of him now, ok?”