A suitable position
Author: James Scofield O’Rourke, IV (BBA '68), Teaching Professor of Management
Among the more colorful and distinguished characters I had the privilege of meeting as a faculty member at the U.S. Air War College was an Army major general by the name of Patrick Henry Brady. He spoke in a class of mine, sketching out the details of how, on just one day in January of 1968, he and his medivac crew saved the lives of 60 wounded and otherwise defenseless combat infantrymen in South Vietnam.
It was no surprise to me that he had done all of that, under intense ground fire, churning through three Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters in the process. He was tough, fearless, and given the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in action. He’s the only one I know who’s also won the Distinguished Service Cross, usually thought of as a consolation prize for those who don’t receive the MOH. Brady really was something else.
He was also a Notre Dame grad. In a conversation following his talk to my class, he said, “The Notre Dame Alumni Association is presenting me with the Corby Award next month. You ought to come up and join us.” That was the weekend of the ND-Navy game and I told him, “Count me in.”
I invited my daughter, Colleen, to come along and talk with the admissions folks at Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame. I didn’t have to ask twice.
On a sunny but cold November Friday, while Colleen was meeting people in the Main Building, I decided to walk the campus and reacquaint myself with the school that had offered me so much and that I had grown to love. On a quiet walk through the Hurley Building, home to the business school from 1932 to 1995, I stopped at the office of Professor Salvatore Bella, a renowned labor economist who had come to Notre Dame from Cornell. I was Bella’s grader as a senior in 1967. I read and marked exams, printed handouts on the mimeograph machine, and kept the engine of labor economics at Notre Dame humming while he thought of new ways to introduce Samuel Gompers and George Meaney to capitalist undergraduates.
“O’Rourke!” he exclaimed. “My God, good to see you. What are you up to these days?” The answer was a familiar line: visiting old haunts. “You’re still in the Air Force, right?” Yes, that’s right. “Aren’t you about ready to retire?” he asked. Not sure, I replied, but maybe. That might depend on where I could find a suitable position.
“How about teaching here?” he asked. “I don’t think you teach what I do,” I replied. “Well,” he said, “maybe we ought to.” The conversation went on another fifteen minutes when he suddenly said,” Come with me.”
We walked from his office next to the Globe Room, down to 123, his classroom. I remembered it well as a student, but stood awkwardly in the front of the room while he took role. “I’ll be back,” he said, departing with no explanation. I looked at the 24 undergraduates staring at me and asked, “What course is this?” One young fellow looked up and said, “American Labor Relations.”
“Do you know what the heart of labor relations is?” I asked him. Long pause. “No, sir,” he said. “Well, let’s try a stakeholder’s analysis of the labor movement.” I was making it up as I went, but I felt on firm ground, first because Prof. Bella had taught us so well and, secondly, because I was about to make the discussion entirely about Communication.
Twenty minutes later, Sal Bella opened the door to the classroom and said, “O’Rourke, the dean wants to see you.” I thanked the students for their patience and bid them well. As I shook hands with Bella, probably half of them applauded. That was stunning, quite honestly, since no one had ever applauded for anything I’d done.
In the hallway, it occurred to me that I neither knew who the dean of the College was, nor where to find him. Administrative assistants are always helpful with questions of that sort.
I introduced myself to a woman called Joan Gilliam, executive assistant to Dean Jack Keane. She announced that “A Colonel O’Rourke is here to see you,” and that began a 45-minute conversation about everything imaginable. “Do you have a resume?” he asked. Mmm, no . . . not in my pocket. I was dressed for a football weekend, not an interview. “I can get you one, sir.” Brief pause. “Please do that; I’ll need to share it with others in the College.”
When I left, I said to myself, “Well, that was interesting,” but felt entirely certain it would come to nothing.
Three days after Colleen and I returned to Maxwell AFB, I received a phone call from Dean Keane. “We need for you to come back up here,” he said. “The rest of the family wants to meet you.” So, two weeks later, I was back on campus, rotating through a series of faculty interviews, one after another for a day-and-a-half, concluding in the dean’s office.
“They like you,” he said without prologue. “Would you like to work here?” I nodded. “Good,” he said. We went through a brief Kabuki exercise on salary, as he wrote a figure on a small slip of paper. “Here’s what I think the University can do for you.” As he pushed the paper across the table, I could see it was substantially more than what I was willing to settle for.
I drew in a large breath, held it briefly and covered my mouth. I honestly couldn’t speak. An unknown period of time passed. He reached for the paper, stroked through the number he had written, and raised it by about 15 percent. “Okay,” I said, coming to my senses. “Now we’re talking.”
We agreed on a number of other issues, including a Center devoted entirely to Business Communication. Then he said, “Do I have your word you’ll be here in August, ready to begin teaching?” “You do, sir. I’ll be here.” He paused a moment and said, “Good. Keep in mind that I have no money and no one but me really thinks this is a good idea.”
I assured him that wouldn’t be a problem. My next task was to head over to LaFortune – find a pay phone – call home and tell Pam we would be moving to South Bend. For the 7th time in 20 years, I had agreed to change jobs. My real hope, of course, was that this would be for the last time. That was 32 years ago.
James O’Rourke is a teaching professor of management. He was the founding director of the Fanning Center for Business Communication and The Conference on Corporate Communication at Notre Dame and has published more than 20 textbooks.