Looking back on our lives is like viewing old photos in a family album. We touch a memory, relive an emotion, or recall an old story — and once more the connection is made. We are taken back in time, and yet we view the memory through the lens of the experiences the events of our past have set in motion. Such is the case for my mother and Notre Dame.
While very few people from Notre Dame would today remember my mother, Rose McCann, it is through her and her extraordinary history that our family connects with the university — not just with a football team or a college, but with the soul of the school and those who were a part of it. The spirit of Notre Dame that lives in our hearts remains so powerful precisely because of the impact it had on our mother. She taught us the values she learned from her time in South Bend and passed on to us a deep and lasting love for the Fighting Irish that continues to this day and will never be broken.
The Spot Where the Little House Stood
My mother was born Rose Kunkle in South Bend, Indiana, on March 15, 1927. Her family lived at 1130 E. Bulla Road, the very place where “Touchdown Jesus” now stands overlooking the stadium. Her father, Bert Kunkle, was a carpenter at Notre Dame for 20 years and supervised the carpenters who worked on the construction of the football stadium. Her brothers would park cars and sell hotdogs at football games. Her brother Wally was Notre Dame’s official photographer for several years and her brother Bert was a Professor of Literature at the college from 1946-48.
As a girl, my mother played with Knute Rockne’s children. As a young woman, she worked in the Golden Dome administration building with Jean Rockne. She would go to all the home games, buying her tickets for the employee discounted price of $2.50. My mother and father met at Notre Dame and were married in the Basilica on campus. In 1946, members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross relocated to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and founded King’s College, where my mother also worked, and where my siblings and I attended college.
Memories Held in the Hand
The power that turns these memories into such a meaningful bond lies in something that goes beyond events and relationships associated with a school. It reveals itself in the heart that loved us unconditionally and stood by us as we grew into adulthood. It manifests itself in the countless objects we have collected over the years — photographs and flyers, signatures of the giants who made Notre Dame what it is today, and memorabilia from my mother’s days at the university. When we gaze upon a faded image or hold a piece of history in our hands, we touch my mother’s excitement, her grace-filled spirit, and the glory of those early times she shared at Notre Dame.
After my mother passed away, I was blessed to receive an old wooden footstool, repurposed by her father from the original wooden seats in the old stadium. It meant a lot to me to have a piece of my mother’s past, but I must confess I was never the Fighting Irish fan that my youngest brother Tim is. The basement of his house is a shrine of honor to Notre Dame, filled with signed portraits and hand-painted murals, books and mugs and coasters, and all manner of mementos from pilgrimages made to the university.
I remember the day I gave the footstool to Tim. He was moved beyond words; for no matter how many souvenirs he had collected over the years, none spoke to his heart in the same way as his grandfather’s handiwork. He promptly and proudly displayed the stool at the bottom of his basement stairs so that the object that so vividly connected him to our mother’s legacy would be the first thing visitors to this sacred football sanctuary would see.
The True Ties that Bind
There are so many other connections to Notre Dame that the McCann clan boasts of with pride: my grandparents’ relationship with Fr. Ted Hesburgh, for whom the Hesburgh library is named. My brother Tim’s wife Shelley’s blood relationship to Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana. My mother’s friendship with so many Fighting Irish players, including All Americans Ziggy Czarobski (47) and Jim Martin (49), and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lujack (1947). Her autograph from Pat O’Brien, who played Knute Rockne in the movie, Knute Rockne: All American (Warner Brothers, 1940). The amusing story my mother told of how she didn’t consider Ronald Reagan a big enough star at the time to get his autograph when they were filming the movie at the college.
All of these are grand and wonderful, yet it is the deeper connections that I remember the most. I recall my brother John phoning my mother right after the first Notre Dame score of every game they ever watched. I remember too his great sadness at the first game following my mother’s death when he reached for the phone and realized he couldn’t make the call.
I smile when I think about how my brother Tim named his youngest son, Brady, after quarterback Brady Quinn, but made sure that his middle name was Alexander, so that if Brady made it onto the Fighting Irish in years to come, he would have the nickname “BAM” (for Brady Alexander McCann) in honor of his enthusiasm for football and his tough tackling style. My sister Margaret has been the keeper of photos and stories so that none of us will ever forget what Notre Dame meant to our mother and means to us. And my brothers Martin and Matt, and my sister Mary were always around to lend their humor and enthusiasm for the Fighting Irish as well. These are the true connections that follow the line back through my mother to her early days when Notre Dame was in her backyard.
Pilgrimages and Touching the Past
My brothers and sisters have made several trips to South Bend to visit the campus and the places where our mother lived, where she knelt before the altar on the day she married our father, and where she walked and worked and made memories with the men and women who lived during those early magical days when Rockne and the Four Horsemen put South Bend and Notre Dame on the map. None of my siblings has been able to put into words the feeling of setting foot in the spaces where it all began; and yet, when I see the tears on their faces and hear the love in the words they speak, I need nothing more.
My mother had that eternal effect on people. Her love for her birthplace and the memories she shared there have remained with us and continue to carry us and connect us to one another. And because we share such a deep connection to Notre Dame, its early rising stars, and the woman who grew up where it all went down, it means ever so much more. Far away in my home in Connecticut, I miss those times in Pennsylvania with my family watching Notre Dame games, sharing stories about my mother and her days in South Bend, and basking in the glow of the light and love we share that is her legacy and the legacy of Notre Dame.