Dear NDLS Friends: As I watch from afar the challenges facing the campus this semester I thought that you might appreciate a lighthearted and uplifting diversion. The history of Notre Dame shows time and again that even the smallest choices by individuals may have the greatest and most long-lasting impact on the community. Here’s one example.
Professor William Ivers is the Notre Dame Lawyer who contributed more to the appearance of campus than any person you’ve never heard of. What makes his story fascinating, however, is his true passion, which was definitely not the law. The professor wanted to … dance.
William Ivers was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1839. His family moved to New Orleans – there are no decent schools in New Haven, after all – where his mother had extended family. William’s father died in New Orleans and his mother soon remarried. The family (which now included a half-brother, John O’Connell) moved to a farm near Dubuque, Iowa. Tragedy followed them, however, and in 1850 William’s mother died. At that point Mr. O’Connell returned William to New Orleans to live with an uncle, a relatively prosperous merchant named Cornelius Sweeney. William was not yet a teenager.
Uncle Cornelius saw promise in the lad and determined that William needed a solid education. In 1853, Uncle Cornelius delivered William to the University of Notre Dame. It is difficult to understand how or why Cornelius selected a small and recently established school in north central Indiana, when he lived in a large city with a vibrant Catholic education system. If you enjoy the view on campus today, however, you will be grateful that Uncle Cornelius chose Notre Dame.
William excelled as a student, especially in mathematics. He frequently earned the top marks in algebra, geometry, and especially the courses in surveying. He went on to earn three degrees from Notre Dame (including a Bachelor of Laws), to serve as Chair of the Department of Mathematics, and to serve for several years as a Professor of Law. His colleagues and students found him to be able, unassuming, pleasant, and straightforward. Notre Dame was lucky to have him. Uncle Cornelius had been right: the boy deserved an education, and he delivered when he received one.
In 1879 the University discovered just how lucky it was. In April of that year a tremendous fire tore through campus, destroying nearly every significant building. Father Sorin and Father Corby promised that the university would rebuild, bigger, better, and more grandiose than before – and to do so before classes resumed in the fall. The logistics of such a construction project were daunting. Who made it work? Professor William Ivers, Notre Dame Lawyer, that’s who.
Professor Ivers conducted the land surveying that was necessary in order to rebuild. In particular, William Ivers marked off the dimensions of the building that now holds the Golden Dome – and he did so less than a month after fire ravaged the previous structure. A Notre Dame Lawyer – who happened to be very good at surveying – was in the right place at the right time and did the right thing. Without him, who knows whether the term “Domers” would even exist today?
It’s not as if Prof. Ivers’ life was otherwise calm and uninterrupted in 1879. He had married in 1870 and at the time of the fire had a seven year-old daughter, Maggie. Both Maggie and her mother were frequently ill, requiring much of William’s attention. (This season Maggie contracted diphtheria, the primary symptom of which is a “thick, gray membrane covering the throat and tonsils.” Thanks, Mayo Clinic website!) In order to ensure that Maggie could attend classes, the family moved nearer to the school (the site of the current Saint Joseph Grade School). By “moved” I mean that William had his house and all outbuildings from Notre Dame Avenue transported and deposited at the new site.
And in late 1879 Uncle Cornelius died. William returned to New Orleans for the reading of the will, where he met up with his half-brother John O’Connell for the only time recorded since William’s step-father had sent him to New Orleans at age 12. Each of them – both nephews of Cornelius – received around $3,000.00, which would be roughly $75,000.00 today.
At the end of the 1879-80 academic year William Ivers determined that a wholesale move was in order; he and his family departed South Bend. The reason he provided for the move was “the health of his wife.” They moved to Philadelphia, however, so who knows where the truth lies.
Whatever the reason, when the Notre Dame Professor of Mathematics and Law arrived in Philadelphia, he did NOT continue a career in academia or law. Instead, he charted a new course by … opening a drug store. Visitors could find him at the corner of 11th Street and Mount Vernon Street, about a mile northwest of Independence Hall.
William Ivers died in Philadelphia in 1891. The move had been good for his wife, Fernande; she outlived him by 25 years. Best of all, Maggie, who had been so sickly as a child, led a full and active life. She married Gustave Jessen, an immigrant from Denmark, became a teacher in the Philadelphia public schools, and influenced countless young lives. She passed away in 1943 at age 71.
William Ivers faced adversity as a child that few of us can even imagine. He did not give up. Uncle Cornelius had the opportunity to send William to any number of schools near New Orleans. He chose Notre Dame instead. Because of their tenacity and spirit we are blessed with a beautiful campus, a strong university, and one of the most iconic landmarks in American education: the Golden Dome.
And the dancing? That’s a teaser, but it’s true. Stay tuned for the next installment.
For sources and additional reading see p. 2