I was home from Europe for a week, then headed back toward the EMBA classroom at the University of Illinois in downtown Chicago, my 10th visit there. Flew to O’Hare early on Friday, October 3, hopped on the Blue Line train, was downtown by 11, and onto an exercise bike by 11:20. Pounded out 12 miles, cleaned up, and at one met Kevin, Rick, and Amal, EMBA students from the University of Illinois who I met the previous year. I was teaching the next class later in the day, and the three wanted to bounce some ideas off me. They were an accomplished group, respectively a downtown real-estate developer, an exec of a Chinese manufacturer, and an emergency-room physician turned management consultant. They were smart, experienced, and ambitious. It was a fun lunch.
At three I met a former mentee Lora Tolar O’Riordan, once at American Airlines and now with United. It had been two years, so we had a good catch up yak. A nice sort-of-T-t-S with Jim Bonner, the security officer in the U of I’s building on Wacker Drive; I remembered his name from previous years, and he was pleased. We had a short yak. It’s good to take the time to visit with people like Jim.
At 5:15 it was time to stand and deliver, to 36 from the EMBA Class of 2014. I like older students, and this group was seriously engaged, asking lots of questions. After class they served a buffet dinner (with beer!), and I had a good opportunity to yak some more.
Up early Saturday morning, down to the gym, then out the door on a cool but sunny morning, east to Millennium Park, passing and photographing Anish Kapoor’s fabulous sculpture “Cloud Gate,” then into a breakfast place for a huge startup meal.
By 8:45 I was rolling south and east on the South Shore train, bound for South Bend. I had not ridden that line for 48 years, and had not traversed the heavy-industrial landscape of the southeast suburbs of Chicago and northwest Indiana for almost 40. I looked out the window and saw a lot: the ornate red-brick office building of the former Pullman railway sleeping-car factory, still splendid though long abandoned; the Ford assembly plant where Robin’s new Explorer was built; the Gary Works of U.S. Steel, long a pillar of U.S. industry and still (judging from steam and smoke) making American steel; the Burns Harbor complex of the global steel giant Arcelor Mittal (formerly the mill of Bethlehem Steel); the tiny Cool Runnings Jamaican Restaurant in Michigan City (how did they get there?); and more. Beyond the factories were corn and beans farms, some dairy operations, some tourism closer to Lake Michigan.
Arrived in my weekend destination, South Bend, Indiana, at 12:15. It was football game day at the University of Notre Dame, a signal event I had wanted to attend for years. Seven weeks earlier, Rick and Murph Dow, both alumni, invited me down. I was pumped! But also a bit reluctant, for the forecast at kickoff was cold rain. Rick, who lived in South Bend for a decade beginning in high school, picked me up at the station (one of his dad’s last jobs was teaching at the university). We headed to his brother-in-law Jason’s house, which were my digs for the night, and started meeting some of Murph’s huge extended family. Jason, his wife Kara, and daughter Eavan. Henry and Thomas, small kids belonging to I’m-not-sure-whom. We paused briefly, then walked several blocks to campus, and on the Murph’s tailgate setup, one of hundreds in parking lots. The party was in full swing, more friends to make, including Rick and Murph’s oldest child, also Rick. Ate some of Murph’s wonderful food, yakked, had a beer.
At 2:15, 75 minutes before game time, Rick took me on a tour of campus and a chance to see the band process across the quads to the stadium. Notre Dame college spirit was something; Robin’s alma mater, USC, has it in abundance, but not quite at the level of the Irish. And there was more to come at the game. After the huge band passed, we walked most of the large campus, including the basilica, recently restored (frescoes and ceiling freshly painted), the gold-domed administration building that I recall seeing more than a half-century ago on road trips. “What’s that gold building,” I asked my dad as we whizzed along the Indiana Toll Road. “The University of Notre Dame,” he replied. “Can we go see it?” I asked. We did not, so it was special to stand below the dome.
It was nearly game time, so we headed into the stadium. The ticket-scanner smiled at me and said “Welcome to Notre Dame.” He said that to every patron, but his welcome was so genuine. I did feel welcome, abundantly so. True to forecast, it was pelting rain, 39° F, brisk wind. Rick had foresight to bring rain gear, a full suit for him and sailor’s vinyl pants for me, which helped a lot. The yelling, cheering, clapping went on for more than three hours, helped along by the marching band. The fight song (“Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame . . .”) got us on our feet every time. The game was great, and it came down to the final 61 seconds. Notre Dame down 14-10. Fourth and goal on the 11 yard line. They moved the ball more than 50 yards in 120 seconds, but stalled. Not looking good I thought. Then quarterback Everett Golson drilled the ball to tight-end Ben Koyack in the far corner of the end zone, caught, touchdown. Pandemonium. The man in front of me grabbed and hugged me. Chaos, cheering, yelling with what was by then a hoarse voice. What a total blast.
We walked back to Jason’s house, where a party was well underway, lots of folks that didn’t want to brave the cold and wet. Met Murph’s other brother Randy and his wife Jory, Aunt Pebby, and lots more. A tight, loving family, truly wonderful people. Most were gone by 10:30. But the Dows’ Notre Dame immersion continued. Rick cued the classic “Irish Blessing” on the Kellys’ widescreen TV; you know the piece (“May the road rise up to meet you / may the wind be always at your back . . .”), but the video narrator was the great Father Ted Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987, and a totally righteous person (he’s now 97). I have no Irish ancestry, but tears came to my eyes. Then Murph cued another touching video, “Here Come the Irish,” and at that pointed I considered myself a well and truly adopted son of Notre Dame. I don’t think it was the beer.
Rick and Murph left, and I yakked a bit more with young Rick, Jason, and Cara, then retired to a comfy bed in the basement. It had been a very special day, and their manifold kindness was a big part of it.
Up at 6:30, out the door with Rick the elder, off to downtown South Bend, past the site of his former music bar, Vegetable Buddies, and into Le Peep for breakfast. Almost every person in the restaurant had a ND logo on some piece of clothing. Some more than one. Go Irish!
Rick dropped me back at the station at 8:45 for the 9:01 back to Chicago. Barely 21 hours in South Bend, whew, an intense experience, and an awesome one. I thanked him, hugged him and hopped on the train for morning prayers, especially of thanks for the experience, for my blessed, varied, and mobile life.
Then I cued Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” train music, Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” and Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home.” The tunes fit as we lurched west toward a city synonymous with American railways. Unlike the day before, this was an express train, and we were back in Chicago in no time. Hopped back on the Blue Line to O’Hare and snagged the last seat on an earlier flight to Madison, landing at 12:25. I was bound for my 8th annual visit to the University of Wisconsin, a total fave.
The booking at the UW-run hotel got goofed up, and the aloof clerk at the place called Union South directed me back to the Memorial Union, an historic (1928) building on the shore of Lake Mendota. The rooms are spartan, but I don’t need luxury, and the lakeside location is awesome. Took a nice nap, and at 4:30 I went for a short walk along the shoreline.
Heading back, a fellow my age said to me “I heard [from a phone call with Linda] that you were staying in the Memorial Union hotel; did you get a lakeview room?” That query led to a pleasant T-t-S moment with George, a 65-year-old Ohio native who teaches sailing to UW students. We covered a lot of ground in 10 or 15 minutes. Just out of college he worked in the Lorain Works of U.S. Steel, which prompted my recall of passing steel mills the previous day, and a long conversation on steelmaking, industrial process, Midwestern economic geography, and more. At one point I really wished that UW Ph.D. John Borchert (1918-2001), one of my grad-school advisors, mentors and friends, had been with me. He would have loved the dialogue.
At five, according to formula – and the Madison visit is totally formulaic – I met friends Dan and Cheryl Smith in the Rathskeller of the Memorial Union. Dan has had a long and varied career in agriculture: as a dairy farmer in northern Illinois, CEO of a progressive ag supply business, and now as a head of a division of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that looks after business development for all the bounty that state produces. He’s had that cool job for a year, and rates it 98/100 on job satisfaction. We chatted a lot about his position, our kids, the state of the world, and more, as we tucked into a splendid Italian meal at Cento, a new place downtown. Such great people.
Monday morning, waiting in the lobby of Memorial Union, this suit catches the eye of a youngster with a skateboard and big backpack. You could almost see what he was thinking. “I was your age once,” I said. Walking away, he said, “and it ain’t never coming back.” Yup. Next step was breakfast with Jan Heide, one of my favorite B-school hosts, just a great guy. Up to school for back-to-back lectures to first-year MBA students. Back to the Union, change clothes, buy a $5, 24-hour pass for BCycle, the Madison bikeshare, then west on the path along Lake Mendota. Such a beautiful campus. Like most bikeshares, you need to swap cycles every 30 minutes (or incur a charge), so the afternoon was spent zipping from station to station. High point was a large chocolate malt, made in the traditional way, at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store. Not surprising that the large public university in America’s Dairyland offers degrees in dairy science, milks cows nearby, churns its own ice cream. Wow. Rode 34 miles, a good afternoon.
After a quick nap, back onto the BCycle and a mile south and east, back to Cento, the Italian place where we dined the night before. I arrived a bit early, so sat down at the bar and studied the beer menu, settling on Central Waters Mud Puppy Porter from Amherst, Wisconsin (I pride myself on knowing Wisconsin places, but had to look up that town; it was in the middle of the state, in an area known for wetlands, which is why their logo features a heron). Read The New York Times on my iPhone, smiling at the news of a Nobel awarded to a British-American and two Norwegian scientists for discovering “an inner GPS, in the brain,” that makes navigation possible for virtually all creatures. So that’s what helped me get to Cento. Smiled, too, at the Supreme Court’s decision to let stand decisions allowing gay marriage. And was saddened by news that a black bear cub was found dead in Central Park, New York, and may have been killed by humans. Who would do such a thing?
Jan, his wife Maria, fellow prof Jean Grube, and I had a superb meal and a long chat across a lot of topics. It was the sixth time we gathered, splendid continuity. At 9:45 I said goodbye, swiped my ATM card at the BCycle stand, and rode back to the Union.
The BCycle pass was for 24 hours and my first class was not until 12:15, so I hopped back in the saddle Tuesday morning, south to Lake Wingra and Lake Monona, then east through the Marquette neighborhood to the Yahara River, which links Monona and Mendota. It was a warm (50° F.) morning, and I pounded out 17 miles. Stopped at a downtown supermarket for some yogurt and a banana and headed back to my room. A good start to the day. Suited up, walked to the B-school, worked a bit, and at 11:30 met a new host, Borbala Kulcsar, a nice young Hungarian woman who replaced Jean as a lecturer in HR, then delivered a 50-minute talk to undergrads. Not enough time, and a bit of torpor in the class. At one, Jan, Borbala, and I processed, by formula, east on University Avenue to Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry, a classic burger joint, for a caloric meal. Back to school, one more class, the goodbyes.
Back in my room I did some work, and at 5:30, I rode the elevator down to the Rathskeller, grabbed a glass of Zenith wheat beer, and headed out on the terrace. It was the picture of the good life in Wisconsin: sailboats cutting across Lake Mendota, puffy clouds tinged with violet on the horizon, students and profs talking earnestly. But it was a bit chilly, so I headed indoors to bring this journal up to date. I was hoping for a repeat of 2013, when about 6:45 the pep band marched through and out onto the terrace. It didn’t happen, so I finished my beer, and ambled to Chipotle on State Street for a tofu burrito (enough meat the last several days!). Back at the union, the sole elevator was busy with foodservice workers shuttling stuff to the airport, so I headed up the stairs, and was glad I did. The reading rooms on the second and third floors were superb, old school, students playing classical music on a piano, kids on their laptops. The best of college life.
Got to bed early, and up at 4:25. Out the door, but did not notice, until the taxi driver pointed it out, that the full moon seven hours earlier was now a crescent, and headed toward a total eclipse. The orb was fully covered, and peach in color, when our plane taxied out for takeoff from MSN. Way cool. Changed planes in Chicago, and had the dogs on leash before noon.