By Jim Lefebvre
100 years ago today, on Monday June 15, concluding three days of campus celebrations, final Commencement exercises were held before a packed house at Washington Hall for the Class of 1914 at the University of Notre Dame.
Among the degrees awarded:
“The Degree of Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy is conferred on Knute Kenneth Rockne, Chicago, Illinois.”
Elsewhere on the program, Charles Emile Dorais of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, was one of 38 graduates awarded a Bachelor of Laws degree. Dorais was one of a handful of graduates to present Bachelors’ Orations, delivered in Washington Hall on the morning of Commencement Day. His talk, entitled, “The Regeneration of the Individual,” quoted Plato and Socrates and celebrated individual freedom and natural law.
One striking aspect of the 1914 Commencement was the seemingly low number of graduates, even considering total enrollment at the time was barely over 1,000. Fewer than 100 bachelor’s degrees were awarded.
It’s instructive to remember that continuing through college and gaining a degree was far from a given once a student stepped onto a campus. Numerous students, at Notre Dame and elsewhere, had their college work interrupted by financial stress, family situations, military service, and the prospect of work that didn’t require a college degree.
In Rockne’s case, a deciding point came two years earlier, in May of 1912, as he was nearing completion of his sophomore year at Notre Dame. Word came from home that his father, Lars, had died suddenly. 24-year-old Knute packed his grip, left campus, and assumed it was for good. Certainly, he assumed, he would need to stay home in Chicago and help provide for his mother and four sisters.
It was then that his two older sisters stepped forward and insisted Knute continue his education; they would enter the work force (echoing a new social trend in the country) and keep the household going. Shortly after the funeral, Knute returned to the campus that would be his home the rest of his life.
The 70th commencement of the University of Notre Dame opened on Saturday evening, June 13, 1914, when the Honorable Eli Watson, former U.S. congressman from Indiana, “delivered a powerful and eloquent oration” decrying the perceived ills of socialism. At Monday evening’s final exercises, the commencement speaker, U.S. Sen. Joseph E. Ransdell of Louisiana, spoke at great length, and with great force, about the scourge of divorce in American society.
A more positive tone was struck in between, at Sunday morning’s Baccalaureate Mass. “At 7:55,” the Scholastic reported, “the academic procession, composed of the graduating class in cap and gown, faculty in their professorial robes, and clergy in surplice and biretta, formed in the corridor of the Administration building and moved slowly through the east wing of the University Chapel where Solemn Mass was celebrated.”
The Rev. Francis H. Gavisk of Indianapolis delivered the baccalaureate sermon, which the Scholastic noted for “the excellence of his address, its practical character, and significant appropriateness.”
At one point, Father Gavisk intoned:
“See how social service can be ennobled by Christian motives of action. The Catholic young man should, moreover, recognize his debt of gratitude to all that went before him, to his parents, to his teachers, to his University, to his community – all the complex factors that have made his opportunities possible. He is the heir of the accumulated treasure of public good that has been amassed for him, and his ambition should be to add to that store all that he can to make for better civil, social and religious life. This is the true public spirit. All perhaps can not take a leading part in public life in the commonwealth and in the Church, but all should have the spirit of public service, to make the world in which he lives a little better for his having been in it, to make the Kingdom of God in his own environment all the stronger and more glorious for his part in it. No man worthy of the day can sit idly by and be self-centered in his own private interests. The truest ambition is so to employ life as to be of the greatest service to others.”
We can envision 26-year-old Knute Kenneth Rockne, who came to Notre Dame four years earlier, self-conscious as “the lone Norse Protestant,” taking in the words of Father Gavisk, his invitation “to employ life as to be of the greatest service to others.” Rockne had certainly made the most out of his opportunities in four years on campus – as a scholar and athlete, a musician, a thespian, a leader, and an all-around good fellow.
In the years to come, starting in the fall of 1914, when Rockne began his teaching and coaching career as assistant football coach, head track coach and chemistry instructor in Notre Dame’s prep school, this special son of Notre Dame would teach, guide, and lead hundreds, then thousands, then millions as a disciple for the good and proper role of athletics in the American academy and national culture.