(Opinion): Memories of the Gipper and Notre Dame

by Richard W. Conklin

I never voted for Ronald Reagan, but I met him twice during my years in public relations at the University of Notre Dame and witnessed his emotional relationship to a school that at times I think he really thought he had attended.p. A young Ronald Reagan played legendary Notre Dame halfback George Gipp in the 1940 movie, “Knute Rockne, All American,” which also starred actor Pat O’Brien as Coach Knute Rockne. That was a break-through role for Reagan and one that he never forgot.p. Reagan and O’Brien were reunited at Notre Dame’s 1981 commencement, when Reagan gave the graduation address and both received honorary degrees. It was perhaps historically the most tense such event ever on campus. The president was still recovering from wounds inflicted in an attempted assassination; it was his first trip outside Washington since that near-fatal incident. And midweek before commencement, there was an attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life in Vatican City which made the Secret Service even more nervous.p. The Secret Service never gives numbers in terms of staffing, but we turned over a newly completed but never occupied residence hall to them and they proceeded to fill it. New security protocols were in effect, including the first use of metal detectors for the 12,000-plus graduation audience. Students were advised that popping champagne bottles might have unintended consequences. It is difficult to remember today that Reagan was not uniformly popular, even after narrowing escaping an assassin’s bullet. Every Catholic left group in the country had sent protestors to campus.p. We rearranged the graduation sequence so the president could speak early in the ceremonies and leave. When Pat O’Brien received his honorary degree, Reagan rose from his chair and the two robed men embraced center stage to what I would still argue was the most sustained applause ever recorded in the campus convocation center. The president was seen whispering something to O’Brien, and he later said his words were: “I guess they liked the movie.”p. Off-stage while the ceremonies went on and before the president got into his car, he was presented with a Notre Dame monogrammed blazer, and much to everyone’s surprise he took his own suitcoat off and donned it. Those of us close enough glimpsed a bulletproof jacket under his shirt. The Secret Service subsequently requested all photographs and original negatives from the university photographer.p. Seven years later, Reagan returned to dedicate a first-class postage stamp featuring Rockne, the first coach ever so honored. His staff wanted to play heavily off the 48-year-old movie, but this meant showcasing an out-of-date football image of a university now considered among the best places for an undergraduate education in the nation. I became very unpopular with the advance people. Could the Irish mascot, the leprechaun, present the president with a shillelagh? Well, no; too hokey. Would the football team wear their jerseys to the stamp ceremonies? No, they don’t wear them as students. We compromised. Scenes from the movie were shown, and Reagan did throw a football into the audience (caught serendipitously by Heisman Trophy receiver Tim Brown, not, however, wearing a jersey).p. Reagan spoke privately to a selected group of Republicans after the ceremony and recounted many stories from the filming of “Rockne,” to the point where the film seemed to become reality to him. The university reciprocated these feelings, at one point giving him Gipp’s letter sweater, an act that infuriated many alumni, mainly Democrats. While I have never personally checked, I’ve always assumed that Gipp’s letter sweater ended up in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Museum, a symbol of the curious relationship between a president and a university.p. _ Conklin retired in 2001 as associate vice president for university relations at Notre Dame and now lives in Mendota Heights ._

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