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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Coming full circle at Notre Dame’s Grotto

I appreciate the unique quality of La Cañada; the identities of its residents are distinctly aligned with allegiance to a myriad of local universities.

Mike Smith, who frequents Starbucks, still wears the blue and gold of UCLA. But UCLA blue is not just any blue. It’s distinctly different. Their blue is referred to as “hero” blue. Mike played in the Rose Bowl back in the day.

David Vaughn is still a California Bear, and he wears “Berkeley Blue.” My buddy Wes Seastrom, a USC grad, honors the cardinal and gold. Their loyalties hardly touch the surface of La Cañada's allegiance to their alma maters.

The evolution of alma mater is the very definition of that sacred relationship between a university and its students. The term was first associated with the University of Bologna, established in 1088. The term is an allegorical Latin phrase for a university or a college; it’s often associated with a unifying song and its visual metaphor depicts a stately robed woman. The term is translated as “nourishing mother,” and suggests that a university provides intellectual nourishment to its students. Socrates tells us education is holistic and nourishes its students intellectually, spiritually, socially and physically. The synchronicity of that nourishment defines the lifelong connection with the university.

We’re lucky to have that sense of place with a university, a human experience.

Last week, I traveled to South Bend, Ind., to visit a former student, Davitt Avagyan. He’s now studying law at the University of Notre Dame. I also attended the Notre Dame versus Miami of Ohio football game. The Friday before game day, the campus was inundated by thousands of alumni who came to cheer on their team. More importantly, they came to pay homage to the institution that gave each of them their remarkable journey. There were many touching moments when senior citizens who appeared to be in their 80s put their arms over each other’s shoulders and slowly swayed as they sang their alma mater: “Praise thee, Notre Dame. And our hearts forever. Love thee, Notre Dame.” Of course they sing to the university, yet they were singing to Our Lady. Some were emotional, and I readily saw the passage of time as they relived moments of their youth.

Davitt and I followed the cohorts throughout the campus. My most memorable moment was at the Grotto, a campus shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Off to the side I noticed a young man holding a small boy and smiling down at a little girl. This man, made of metal, stands in eternal vigil. At the base of the statue is a letter he wrote to Father Hesburgh. Its author, Dr. Tom Dooley, a Notre Dame alum, expressed his longings from his death bed to return to the Grotto: “If I could go to the Grotto, I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty ...” Dr. Dooley, renowned as an American hero, spent his life establishing hospitals and clinics in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. He died in 1961.

As I knelt at the Grotto’s edge, I thought of my friends in La Cañada and their unconditional loyalties to their respective universities. In the poem “Ithaca,” Constantine Cavafy speaks to Odysseus’ remarkable 10-year journey sailing home to his beloved wife Penelope. Upon reaching Ithaca he realizes that Ithaca gave him the remarkable journey. I understood my friends’ sentiments and the sentiments of the Notre Dame alumni.

I continued to read Dr. Dooley’s words: “The Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored. Do the students ever appreciate what they have, while they have it? I know I never did.”

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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