100 Years Ago Today: Notre Dame Commencement 1914

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.”

1914 Notre Dame graduate Knute Kenneth Rockne.

1914 Notre Dame graduate Knute Kenneth Rockne.

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.






IPPY Awards Day In NYC: Rockne Would Love It

All of us at Great Day Press congratulate author Jim Lefebvre, who is in New York City today to accept the bronze medal from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY) for our book Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne. The IPPY is awarded for excellence in independent book publishing. This is the second IPPY for Lefebvre and Great Day Press. Loyal Sons: The Story of the Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions won a similar bronze medal when it was published in 2008.

ippy_bronzemedal“We are honored to have received this national award,” Lefebvre said. “And we would like to think that Coach Rockne is here with us in spirit. New York City was such a central element to his life and the times that shaped football and our country’s history in the early 20th century. Let’s not forget, Rockne almost left Notre Dame to accept the head football coaching position at Columbia. How different would Notre Dame football history have been had that happened?”

For a complete list of all the 2014 IPPY winners, click here. Coach For A Nation is Category 65: Sports/Recreation/Fitness. For information on how to order an autographed copy of the book, click here.

From Humble Beginnings

By Jim Lefebvre

For any biography of a prominent person to be thorough, it must explain the place and time that produced the individual. With Knute Rockne, that means the Logan Square area of Chicago, where he lived from age 5 (after immigrating with his family from Norway) to age 22, in 1910, when he went off to Notre Dame and eventual national fame.

minnekirkenOn the Northwest corner of Logan Square sits Minnekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church of Chicago, built in 1908-12. Minnekirken, which means “Memorial Church” in Norwegian, serves as a reminder of a neighborhood heritage in which Scandinavians played a significant part. It’s the last church in Chicago to hold services in Norwegian, and a place where one can experience Norwegian culture in a very real way.

I was honored this past Saturday, May 10, to be the featured speaker at the church’s annual GrØt Fest (GrØt being a Norwegian delicacy, a tasty porridge.) There, I was able to share with an interested audience the details of this famous Norwegian-American’s formative years.

In this setting, he was most definitely Ka-nute, not the Americanized “Newt.” And several attendees noted that they weren’t big football fans. But it didn’t matter — we were there to simply explore how a place and time affected this man’s life and future.

We spoke of how Maplewood and Jefferson townships had just recently been annexed by Chicago, to help it grow to a million residents so that it would be able to host the Columbian World Exposition in 1893. How that same year, brand-new Brentano Elementary School welcomed little Knute and hundreds of immigrants like him, starting a rapid path of Americanization.

Church-1-Logan SquareThe Roknes attended nearby Immanual Norwegian Lutheran, part of the Hauge Synod (a strain of the Lutheran faith known to few seasoned members of Saturday’s gathering).

And we spoke of the neighborhood, definitely not yet a fully developed urban area when the boy Knute and his pals tromped through its open fields, enjoying long days of discovery and adventure. Eventually, they began running races and concocting athletic feats emulating the pole vault and shot put — a precursor to Rockne’s first athletic love, track and field.

It was a time of great excitement, when anything seemed possible. Chicago was fully roaring to life as an industrial giant and transportation crossroad, just a generation after its horrific fire. The modern Olympic Games in Athens provided a spectacle unlike any other in history.

And a youngster growing up in Logan Square, whose future vision would marry athletics with entertainment across a wide American horizon, began seeing his own possibilities.



“Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne” Named IPPY Award Winner!

Great Day Press is pleased to announce that Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, the comprehensive biography by Jim Lefebvre, has been honored for excellence by the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards.

ippy_bronzemedalKnown in the book trade as the IPPYs, the awards are the highest honor for independent book publishing in North America, drawing thousands of entries from university presses, small publishers (fewer than 50 titles per year), and others. Winners are honored at a gala event in New York City on May 28, coinciding with Book Expo America, the industry’s major trade show.

Coach For A Nation received the Bronze Medal in the Sports/Fitness/Recreation category.

“This is a great honor that we accept with gratitude,” said author Jim Lefebvre. “It is a tribute to all who contributed to Coach For A Nation – those who helped with research, editing, design, and production. Each member of our team can be proud of the accomplishment, to produce an outstanding book honoring a remarkable American life.”

Jim becomes a two-time IPPY winner. His 2008 book, Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, was similarly honored.

To order an author-inscribed copy of the award-winning book, click here.

Losing Your Leader: The Shock of March 31, 1931

By Jim Lefebvre

Paul Castner was always Knute Rockne’s kind of Notre Dame student-athlete. A natural leader, Castner came out of St. Thomas Military School in St. Paul, and brought to Notre Dame a habit of self-discipline that allowed him to excel in every activity he attempted. Ruggedly handsome, with an athletic build, Castner was the star pitcher on the Fighting Irish baseball team, player-coach of the Notre Dame hockey squad, and a key member of Rockne’s football powerhouse. A versatile back, Castner was a wonder at passing, rushing, kicking, and defending. He could do it all.

Paul Castner

Paul Castner

In one game, on Nov. 4, 1922, against Indiana at Cartier Field, Castner literally did do it all—scoring every point in a 27-0 Irish victory. Castner scored touchdowns on runs of 23 and 7 yards, along with a 35-yard interception return; added three extra points, and drop-kicked field goals of 45 and 30 yards. Castner was one of just a handful of Irish who were varsity teammates of both George Gipp in 1920 and the Four Horsemen in 1922. In fact, Castner is sometimes called the “Fifth Horsemen”—he was the regular fullback in 1922, before a broken hip sidelined him and led to Elmer Layden replacing him at fullback, joining Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, and Don Miller in an all-sophomore backfield that rode to football immortality the next two-plus seasons.

Rockne strongly believed that the challenges his athletes faced on the playing field prepared them well for success in life, whether in medicine, law, politics, education, or business. And so it was with Paul Castner, who became a rising star in the Studebaker car company, serving at the company’s expansive South Bend headquarters. It was Castner who had the ear of top company executives, and continually pushed them to find a role for one of America’s top motivators right under their nose…Coach Knute Rockne.

Eventually, Studebaker hired Rockne to give motivational speeches to their sales meetings across the country, and in the winter of 1931, Albert Erskine, president of Studebaker and chairman of the board of lay trustees at Notre Dame, appointed Rockne manager of sales promotion for Studebaker. Erskine was enthusiastic about the plans he approved in 1930 for a new car line named after the coach. Paul Hoffman provided Rockne with his own office at company headquarters, next to that of Jim Cleary, vice president of sales. Just down the hallway, Paul Castner had his office; he was delighted to have the coach nearby, though it was unclear how often Rockne would actually occupy his office. It was also uncertain how the new Studebaker position would affect his “day job” as athletic director and head football coach at Notre Dame. On thing was clear: air travel seemed especially appealing to Rockne as he carried out his duties for Studebaker Corp., traveling to speak to sales meetings 20 or more times a year, in locations from coast to coast.

Knute Rockne died in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.

Knute Rockne died in a plane crash on March 31, 1931.

For Paul Castner, life was good. Married with a young son, he and his wife had just purchased their first home, and in the late morning of Tuesday, March 31, 1931, he was busy moving possessions from their apartment to the house. Coming out of the apartment with arms loaded, he saw a neighbor rush to him and call out: “The news on the radio just reported that Rockne has been killed in an airplane crash in Kansas!” With a feeling of shock, and tears in his eyes, Castner ran back into the apartment and called Father O’Donnell. “Yes, Paul,” Father O’Donnell said, sadness evident in his tones. “It’s frightfully sad but it’s true. Our old friend is dead.” Castner slumped in his chair, hardly able to grasp the situation. The man he so respected, his mentor and friend, his coach in football and in life since Castner arrived at Notre Dame in 1919, was gone.

Said Notre Dame president Father O’Donnell: “Nothing that has ever happened at Notre Dame has so shocked the faculty and the student body as the tragic news that came at noon Tuesday of the accident which took Mr. Rockne’s life. To every person at Notre Dame, this was a personal grief as it would be if a member of his family died. Everybody was proud of Rockne, everybody admired him; but something far more than that, we loved him. Altogether apart from the unique and deserved success which he achieved as director of athletics and as football coach, he was a great personality with the attributes of genius.”

The days to follow were a blur of sadness and spectacle, as a university and a country gathered, mourned and remembered. Castner joined hundreds of Rockne’s former players, fellow coaches, and friends from all walks of life who stopped and paid their respects in the front room of the Rockne home on East Wayne Street. On Saturday, April 4, Rockne’s funeral from Sacred Heart Church was broadcast to the nation, and the great coach was laid to rest in Highland Cemetery.

Rock’s men would go on to honor his memory, with lives and careers fashioned to emulate their beloved leader. But their lives would never be quite as rich or as full as the days when they could call upon Coach Rockne, from all corners of the nation, for advice and encouragement.


Portions of this article are excerpted from Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne. By Jim Lefebvre  ©2013 Great Day Press. All rights reserved.



An American Story: From Immigrant to Icon

By Jim Lefebvre

The greatest figure in Notre Dame football history arrived in the world 126 years ago today—March 4, 1888. On that day, few could have foreseen the paths that lay ahead for young Knute Rokne. Here’s a look at how the journey to Notre Dame began.

In southwestern Norway, about 50 kilometers inland from the sea, sits the area of Vossegangen. Its snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys, dense forests, verdant fields, shimmering lakes, and swift-flowing rivers create an outdoor wonderland. At the center is the village of Voss, anchored by a stone church built in 1277, and the nearby Finnesloftet, a wooden guildhall that also dates to the 13th century. It is said that none other than King Olav, who would become St. Olaf, converted residents of Voss to Christianity.

Knute Rockne with his sisters after their arrival in the United States.

Knute Rockne with his sisters after their arrival in the United States.

In the late 19th century, the 5,000 Voss residents were intimately connected to the land, working to extract what it could offer in terms of sustenance. The land also provided recreation in countless ways—hiking, swimming, and boating in the summer; skiing, skating, sledding, and otherwise enjoying the snow and ice of the long winter. It was here in the late-winter chill of March 4, 1888 that Knute Rokne was born. He was the second child of Lars Knutson Rokne and Martha Gjermo Rokne, joining sister Anna, four years older. The family rejoiced over the addition of healthy Knute (whose name they pronounced Ka-nute). Lars could not hide his pleasure over being blessed with a son who could someday take over the family business.

The Roknes of Voss had sunk down deep roots in the area—for generations they had operated farms in the valleys outside the village proper—but their hard work and ingenuity could not be contained. Young Knute’s great-grandfather, Knute L. Rokne, in addition to farming, exhibited a fine skill for repair work and became a blacksmith tending to the equipment of neighboring farmers. He was said to be the first smith in the region to build a wheeled vehicle, a simple horse-drawn carriage that replaced earlier vehicles, which used wooden runners, which were functional over snow but cumbersome on hard ground.

Little Knute’s grandfather and namesake Knute Knutson Rokne, operated both the farm and blacksmith shop until 1852, when he moved his family into town, and concentrated on serving the area as a machinist, blacksmith, and hardware merchant. He carried the vehicle work a step further by constructing buggies and wagons, which featured seats. By the early 1880s Lars Rokne, young Knute’s father, had taken over the work as machinist and blacksmith while his father focused on hardware sales. Over the next few years Lars enlarged the machine shop and began to craft an even greater variety of carriages, including the “kariol,” a highly functional vehicle that could carry a load of hay, crops, or a variety of other materials. He was also the first to use steel springs, creating a much safer, more comfortable ride.

Lars’ skills in crafting carriages caught the attention of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who frequently traveled to Voss’ resorts to enjoy the refreshing air and ambience. Marveling at the quality workmanship, the Kaiser ordered a Rokne carriage. Another vehicle won a prize at the Great Fair in Liverpool. And it was carriage-building that brought Lars, and eventually his family, to the New World. In 1891, Lars was invited to display his wares at the great world’s fair being planned in Chicago—the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

In October 1891, the 33-year-old Lars set off on the trip of his life, for America, leaving behind Anna, 7, Knute, then 3 and-a-half, and infant Martha, 15 months, under the care of their mother. Before leaving, Lars gifted his son with a pair of rubber boots imported from the United States. They allowed the youngster to explore in ever broadening circles, and one day, so the family lore tells, it landed him on an ice floe that broke off and floated him well off the shore in a lake that stretched for miles. Townspeople gathered to mount a rescue, with one of the villagers able to snatch him off the floating ice and back to safety.

So it was with the tyke, who took to all forms of locomotion—skating, sledding, skiing, swimming, and scampering—whenever and wherever he could. From the youngest age, he exhibited a never-ending energy to see, to experience, to go somewhere. Perhaps harking to the particular Norse strain, the same deep-seated desire for discovery and adventure that sent the early Vikings on their battles in Ireland, or Leif Erikson on his way to the New World, or Lars Rokne to Chicago, Knute was destined to move beyond the borders of a small village.

His life would become one of curiosity, discovery, and accomplishment. In ever widening circles, Knute Rockne—the family added the ‘c’ in America—would explore the New World, until, as coach and athletic director at Notre Dame, he logged more railway miles than possibly any other American of his time, on a constant tour of the nation—leading his teams to play in far-flung locations, speaking at functions of all kinds, consulting with other leaders of athletics, and mentoring young coaches, individually and at large coaches gatherings.

Knute Rockne brought a fearlessness to all his endeavors, from coaching to speaking to communicating with the nation. He followed the lead of his parents, who could have had a perfectly safe, stable, and satisfactory life in Voss, Norway, but instead struck out for the promise and possibility offered by the United States in the late 19th century.

What future Knute Rockne is headed to these shores a century later to make his mark on America? One hopes he (or she) has such vibrant models as Lars and Martha Rokne.

Portions of this article are excerpted from Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, by Jim Lefebvre. © 2013 Great Day Press. All rights reserved.