On August 19, 2016, Father Marvin R. O’Connell passed away in South Bend, Indiana. Author of a number of critical studies—biographical as well as historical and philosophical—O’Connell taught in the history department of the University of Notre Dame for most of his professional career. He was, strangely enough, not a member of Notre Dame’s reigning and founding order, Holy Cross, but rather a priest in the Diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, “on loan” to Notre Dame.
Not one of his students would ever accuse Father O’Connell of softness, favoritism, or sloth. He was a fierce man, a fierce priest, and a fierce professor. He possessed perhaps the most penetrating and intelligent eyes and brow I have ever encountered in a teacher. He had a booming voice, and he loved to quote Churchill. Sometimes, he would break into a Churchill speech when trying to explain some complexity of history. Certainly, the most memorable moment in any class I took in college was O’Connell’s full recitation of Churchill’s speech of May 1940, his first speech—“the finest hour” as Prime Minister. I was fairly certain that Churchill was, in fact, standing in our classroom in O’Shannessey Hall at Notre Dame in that fall of 1988. It’s quite possible that O’Connell was shooting lasers and lightning from his eyes as he delivered this speech. Whatever it was, Father O’Connell cast a spell over the entire classroom, and we were ready to go to war against the Nazis, even if it meant our most certain death. Never have I felt a greater call to arms. When O’Connell finished, I looked around the room. There was nothing but stunned silence and a number of tears flowing from the eyes of his students.
Not surprisingly, O’Connell was a master story teller. He knew this as well, and he used it to full effect. On the first day of each of his classes, he proudly informed us that he would allow no sleeping in his classes. “I once kicked Joe Montana out of class. If I can kick Montana out of class, I can certainly kick you out,” he declared. Once, a good friend of mine—the director of the radio station—did actually fall asleep in class. Without breaking his lecture, O’Connell grabbed a number of books, walked to the desk of the sleeping student, and dropped all of the books at once. The noise, of course, startled the student. O’Connell looked at him and said, “get out.” The student did, and Father O’Connell kept lecturing as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Father O’Connell also loved telling us about his first assignment as a parish priest. I don’t remember all of the details—I think it was in St. Paul, proper, but I don’t remember exactly—but his parish was across the street from some Evangelical/Fundamentalist church. Just to shock the Protestants, Father O’Connell would stand in front of the church in full cassock, smoking his cigarettes like a chimney. He strove, he told us, to be misidentified as a “Jesuit.” “Once the Protestants call you that,” he said, “you know you’ve made it.”
He was not, however, just a story teller. He was painstakingly rigorous in what and how he taught. His stories always perfectly illustrated a point, but they were never a substitution for the truth—rather an illustration of it. He would usually take the first several days of a semester simply to give us a context for the course. Imagine, he told us, what it would’ve been like to travel from Rome to Wittenberg by foot or horse, or from Hanover to London by aerial bomber. He would then describe such a journey in great detail, noting everything from time consumed to food and calories needed.
I had the great fortune of taking three classes from him, and he was, by far, the most demanding professor I had in all of my schooling. He had earned his reputation as one of the toughest professors at Notre Dame, and he rather reveled in what he considered a great—perhaps this greatest—accolade. Well, at least almost as great as wrongly being considered a Jesuit.
Earning a “B” from Father O’Connell was an “A+” in any other class. As for his students, he demanded everything we had—not just in the classroom, but out of it as well. My papers would come back from him, dripping in the blood red ink of his marking pen. After waging the slaughter, he would always add an encouraging note. “Birzer, you’re getting better. Keep thinking and keep working!”
After spending the entirety of my sophomore year in Innsbruck, Austria, I came back to Notre Dame in the fall of 1988 rather fluent in German but—weirdly enough—rather deficient in English. When I received my first paper back from Father O’Connell, he wrote on the final page: “Are you a native German speaker?” Believe me, this was not a compliment.
That same fall marked the first time I could vote in a presidential election. Father O’Connell was a true, old-fashioned conservative. In a pre-internet age, I knew that Bush had won, of course, but I had no idea about the fine details of the election. After class, I asked Father O’Connell—then holding a copy of the New York Times—about the details of the election. In conversation, he asked me about my own views on politics. When I told him I had voted for Ron Paul, he showed visible disappointment in me. “That’s not healthy for the republic,” he told me.
Over the twenty-six years since I graduated from Notre Dame, I have kept in contact—not as steadily as I should have—with Father O’Connell. Again, as I mentioned above, he was never cuddly. He was fierce. Yet, I greatly desired his approval of what I’ve done as a writer and a scholar. In fact, there’s no teacher I’ve had of whom I’ve more wanted approval. I have no idea if Father O’Connell ever did approve of my work, but I know that he established and lived the standards by which I measure myself.
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