By George Valadie
Happy birthday, ol’ girl! We salute you.
We salute your age, your impact, you unending and uplifting spirit. After all, who even gets to be 140 years old these days? Few institutions, traditions or inventions (think 8-tracks) — have that sort of life.
Moreover, who or what leaves that sort of legacy?
Father Patrick Ryan did, the founding pastor with a vision of the future even he couldn’t imagine. Mother Angela Robinson did, too; she and three other Dominican Sisters opened the doors in 1876 before heat, air, or light.
So did Monsignor Sullivan, who saw the need to build what so many still lovingly call “old Notre Dame.” Sister Jane Frances has her own deserved place in our lore; she did a little of everything in five different decades.
Sister Hildegarde and Sister Dorothea aren’t far behind her. Jim Phifer’s wisdom impacted an entire generation. Gail Nevins remains a math legend. And Mary Ann Hendee is a legend … period.
You may not know a single individual, but know that the litany of this school’s names not only impacted a school’s history, but also a city’s roots.
Though many have served her longer, I’m both thrilled and proud that 30 of my 55 years with Catholic schools have been right here. Some as a student, more as a teacher; I’ve been a coach and a club sponsor; worked with alumni, and am one; and now I enjoy serving Notre Dame as her administrator — every day of it a privilege.
Given the people from her history and the grace of her inspiration, this institution would be unchanged without my having been a part.
I, however, would not.
And countless others feel the same.
I can honestly say this place is why I do what I do, and to a great degree why I believe what I believe.
Blessed with the perspective of age and years, I can say now what I could have never appreciated then. The teachers of my student years were impressive. And when the time came, they also kept a watchful eye on our fatherless family.
You can look up our test scores, but how does one measure that sort of care?
I have loved most every minute. Oh, it’s never been perfect, mind you; we can surely improve. It’s easy to forget that even though our Church was founded by perfection, that didn’t necessarily carry over to all of His workers. Put me at the top of those in need. But the good always has outweighed the bad.
I’ve long believed that one of the true beauties of our Catholic schools — one of the beauties of this school — is that our students can almost always find someone to be there for them. Most of the time, naturally, that someone proves to be a teacher; so many of them are so good at much more than grammar and theorems.
More times than you can imagine, though, I have seen students in deep and meaningful conversation with someone from the office, the kitchen, or the custodial staff.
Often it’s a coach, maybe a counselor; everyone cares; no one’s off duty.
From first grade through 12th, that history of people who have served is not only the reason so many feel what they feel. But they also are the primary reasons we celebrate 140 years.
But not all. Yes, there are the people — and then there are the stories.
Officially we are celebrating the school’s 140th anniversary. But to be honest, it’s a lie.
Only two years after welcoming its initial class of students, the doors closed.
Historically, 1878 marked the onset of Chattanooga’s yellow fever epidemic. Most of the city fled; those who stayed weren’t interested in doing homework.
So the school closed — as a school — so it could reopen as an orphanage. And not one of the four Dominican Sisters left her post. They and Father Ryan did what many of us wouldn’t. And for two years there was no Notre Dame.
But in the history of this institution, can there be a better lesson about service to fellow man for these 21st-century students? Not to mention what our founders demonstrated to the survivors of a disease-ridden city.
Not quite 100 years later, in 1964, the school didn’t close, but a chapter of its history did. Notre Dame made the decision to become the first private school in the city to voluntarily open its admission to African American students.
And but a year later, they took an equally monumental leap of hosting the city’s first athletic competition between traditionally all-white and all-black schools.
Today, in this most unusual 2016, does anyone have a better lesson we could teach?
And lastly, in an unknown story to most, the Depression era almost killed this old girl. The nation’s financial disaster swallowed up our school in its wake. And the bishop planned to close her.
That was until her people, her supporters, her parents, her alumni, her friends, all heard the news. Their this-won’t-happen, door-to-door effort spread the message and the cause. And every volunteer returned home with the support she so drastically needed.
So why have people loved her so for these 140 years? And why do they still feel this way?
Perhaps Father Mike Nolan, a 1978 alum, may have said it best in his anniversary Mass homily:
“In tonight’s Gospel, Jesus sat down, his disciples gathered round him, and He began to TEACH them.
“And what He said to them, He has said to you, Notre Dame, and through you, and about you for 140 years.
“You are salt of the earth. You are light of the world, a city set on a hill. Your light must shine before all so they may see the good that you do and give glory to God.
“Yet we dare not just look back on great yesterdays. We must look forward to great tomorrows.
“While your loyal sons and daughters march on to victory.”
Happy birthday, ol’ girl! And thank you!
Dear God — She was named to honor your mother, but created to do your work. Please bless her every day. Amen.
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.