November 01, 2008
Notre Dame Junior College Days
The Mitchell Corn Palace
During the summer of 1940 I had been talking to old classmates from Lemmon High School. None of us knew what we were going to do with our lives. We could see no opportunities. I had applied at several universities and colleges. When I saw the tuition cost from these colleges I was dismayed. There was no such thing as financial assistance anywhere as far as I could find out. In other words, if you didn't have money you didn't go to school.
I talked to Ben Lesselyoung from Lemmon and he had written to a Monsignor Brady at Notre Dame Junior College, in Mitchell, South Dakota. This was a teacher's college, you attended for one year and you were certificated to teach in country, one room school houses. If you attended for two years you became certificated to teach all grades in the city schools throughout the state. Since this was the nearest thing to a job that we could find, we both wrote to Monsignor Brady again. The Monsignor wrote back and stated that he would suspend payment of the tuition until we were gainfully employed, after graduation. He further agreed to find jobs for us in the city of Mitchell to cover the cost of our board.
My Brother Neal agreed to drive Ben and I to Mitchell a few days before the start of school. I will never forget the trip in Neal's old car, on roads covered with ice for a hundred and fifty miles of constant skidding. On our arrival in Mitchell, Ben and I had to come up with $8 each to cover the cost of a room. Monsignor Brady sent us down to a rooming house on North Lawler. The back of the house faced on an alley which separated the back of the rooming house from the back of the Corn Palace. Monsignor Brady had given me the address of a restaurant on South Main Street where the proprietress had agreed to give me work. On applying for the job I couldn't help noticing there were several young men about my age who were working about the place. After a couple of days of hemming and hawing it turned out the lady had given the available jobs to kids from Dakota Wesleyan University. She kept saying , "I may be able to find something for you to do", but she never did.
I told Msgr. Brady about my dilemma. After much sputtering and uttering what I suspect were curse words in Irish, he sent me to the Oriental Cafe, a sort of supper club operated by two Greek families. These were some of the finest people I have met in my entire life. They always spoke to me in Greek in an effort to teach me the language. They made candy apples and taught me to do it . I bussed dishes, assisted with cooking and helped with the cooking of doughnuts, then I would deliver the doughnuts to other restaurants around town about five in the morning. Since I was working for my board, I would come in about 4 a.m., help open up the place and usually eat a couple candy doughnuts. They urged me to eat better food , but time was of the essence. The highlight of this job was the week long celebration of Corn Palace. Throngs of people were on the streets. The two partners and I stood shoulder to shoulder at the soda fountain where people were waiting ten deep for ice cream treats. At the end of the five days, without ceremony, Varcellios (which means William) stuck a ten dollar bill in my hand. That was perhaps the most cash I saw at any one time during the nine months I spent in Mitchell.
I guess you wondered if I ever went to school. Notre Dame Junior College was , and still is, a magnificent building totally built of South Dakota red granite. It covers about half a square city block. The rest of the block contained the parish house and a convent. The school was taught by Catholic Nuns. The student body consisted of approximately 190 girls and eight boys. Sounds like a play school. Right? Don't you believe it. There was no play at that school, never. I remember dropping in at a party in progress, with my friend Jimmy O'Donnell, one night. We sat down for a few minutes and were raided by the Mother superior and two Nuns. I never went to another party there.
The school work was very elementary, because they were training elementary school teachers. There was time spent cutting out stuff and pasting on posters, like you would have little kids doing, there was lots of singing so we would learn music and be able to teach little kids. They made sure we learned arithmetic and how to spell. Wish I could remember some of that stuff. There was also something like three months practice teaching.
In practice teaching, I was assigned to a young , very neurotic, but saintly Nun who gave me something like half her class of first grade students and she supervised me while I supervised those little kids. At the end of the three months I had decided I was never going to teach grade school. Those little kids were driving me nuts.
Mentioned in a prior post , I had related the incident of Msgr. Brady giving me the job of Boxing Instructor. That job was a big help and it paid for my room. My roommate, Benny, did not fair well at all. Ben was from a small town, Lemmon, and Mitchell was a big town. There were several universities and several professional (trade) schools. The town was literally swarming with young people, so if you had the time and inclination, there was all kinds of hell to be raised. I will spare you most of Benny's exploits. He has been dead for many years now.
I fell in love once, that I recall. I never had enough money to go to a movie or anything so we would sometimes go to church, walk down Main Street and look in windows of the stores and, "shhh," sometimes we held hands.
As Winter wore on , snow became waist deep sometimes, on the side walks. Delivering the breakfast rolls, and doughnuts in the mornings became a monstrous job, more than once I fell, spilling the pastries in the snow. Of course I would brush the snow off them and arrange them neatly on the tray again. I can still see some to the customers and hear there remarks; "these don't look fresh, are you sure they are fresh?" “These rolls are damp, why are you bringing me damp rolls?”
Winter became more depressing, the snow was deep, the wind howled and many days were blotted out by blinding snow storms, blizzards. There were no longer any people on the streets, no one came in to the restaurant to eat. These wonderful restaurant owners, with tears in their eyes, tried to explain to me they had barely enough food left for their families. This was the depths of the depression.
There was a session at Ruby's Doughnut Shop, where I spent hours cleaning the crusted material from baking trays. For my board, breakfast, lunch and dinner I got doughnuts. I got so I almost never felt good. Then I went to work at the Railroad Cafe where I washed dishes and made sandwiches then, when a train stopped for a 15 minute break, we would have to feed and collect from literally hundreds of people. What a rush! Then it would be several hours, usually, for the next train. What did I get to eat there? Usually cheese sandwiches . We ate what the people didn't buy and that was usually cheese sandwiches.
Once in a great while, I would have a little spare time and I would explore the Corn Palace, a fascinating place, it was actually a Municipal Auditorium. One day I found two men painting mural on the interior walls of this place. I got talking to them and discovered one of them was Billy Lackey, not much older than me and from Faith, my home town. They were doing this job on a grant from the W.P.A. The murals have long since been replaced by other work. However, those Lackey paintings have been preserved in the county administration buildings in Mitchell. It got to be almost a habit to stop and talk to Billy and they would give me little jobs to do and try to teach me the rudiments of painting.
I ran into Billy's coworker, whose name escapes me this minute, I have it somewhere, he was a full professor at the College of Arts and Crafts, on upper Broadway in Oakland, California. This professor wrote a glowing eulogy for Billy, calling him as good or better than Remington. Billy died in Clayton, California about two years ago. He had become famous as an artist, having worked for many of America's largest corporations.
Jimmy O'Donnell and I would sometimes get a couple of hours off from our jobs and school at the same time and we would go around washing and installing storm windows for people. I remember that job well because of the cold, washing those storm windows, in freezing wind, before installing them, was not much fun. Jimmy , of course, didn't become a teacher either, he spent his life on the railroads as a locomotive engineer. I never saw him again and I saw a notice of his death about five years ago.
I can't leave this without mentioning Corcoran's Cafe on North Main Street. Some of us from Notre Dame and others from Dakota Wesleyan University would meet for lunch at Corcoran's. Two or three of us would order a bottle of milk. There was always a heaping bowl of oyster crackers on the tables. We would eat all the crackers and Ma Corcoran would immediately fill the bowls again. We never left there hungry and all it ever cost us was a partial bottle of milk.
At the end of the school year I was beginning to be concerned about getting home. I had collected some few things, but I had no suitcase or anything and no money, so I bought a car. I walked by a car lot one day and fell in love with a 1935 Ford, three window coupe. They were asking $25 for it and since the owner of the car lot was the brother of the Mother Superior (Farrell) at Notre Dame, he agreed to let me have the car with nothing down and I would pay him when I could. So, that was how I got home.