Mendoza School of Business

Turning points

Author: William J. Comerford (BBA '60)

The following significant life experiences changed my outlook and ambitions and illustrate the moral and ethical impact of Notre Dame on my own professional and personal journey beginning with the spectacle of two gridiron legends and enabled by two campus legends.

Notre Dame has been an influence during my entire life because my grandfather and father attended the university in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and carried the tradition into my family. My earliest most vivid memories are listening to the exploits of Johnny Lujack through the radio broadcast of Notre Dame football games in my grandmother’s kitchen in Joliet, Illinois on Saturday afternoons in the 1940’s and attending the Georgia Tech game in Notre Dame Stadium in 1953 with my father who attended daily mass and never uttered a curse word. I was surprised as he took a swig of whiskey from a pocket flask when Johnny Lattner threw a halfback pass. My high school, Joliet Cathodic, maintains a continuing relationship with the University and the coaches, all Notre Dame alumni, further compelled me to apply only to Notre Dame so there was never any question that I would continue my family’s tradition at the college of Our Lady. While my original ambition was to be a commercial artist, I was advised I would have a difficult time earning a living in that profession so I enrolled in the College of Commerce and earned my Bachelor of Business Administration Degree in 1960. This change in direction would lead to a business career that provided my professional opportunity to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.

Notre Dame influenced not only my adolescent and college years but extended into my professional and personal life. I have always been aware that my actions are a reflection of the values of the University and I constantly evaluate the consequences of my decisions. Although I never met Fr. Hesburgh during my four years on campus, he precipitated two meaningful life experiences.

Professional experience: Reform of the City of Chicago Purchasing Department

I was recruited in 1983 by the newly elected Harold Washington administration to implement purchasing reforms promised by Harold Washington in his successful campaign for election as the first black mayor of Chicago. My mission was to reform City of Chicago Purchasing Department policies to provide a fair opportunity for a bigger share of city business to minority owned businesses. It is noteworthy that I was a white Irish Catholic hired by a Black purchasing agent because he needed a deputy “he could trust” in the political jungle of Chicago. I accepted the challenge, giving up a secure position at Argonne National Laboratory gained through 20 years of service for an unpredictable uncertain patronage position serving at the pleasure of the first Black mayor of Chicago. I desired more principled meaning in my professional business career and the reform of one of the most corruptible towns in America delivered an ethical cause greater than myself to establish policy decisions made chiefly on the ethic of moral fairness rather than political machine power reciprocity. Now I was presented with the opportunity to correct the prejudice and corruption of the City contracting system and contribute to the civil rights revolution spearheaded by Martin Luther King and embraced by Fr. Hesburgh in the 1960s in his call for individuals to get involved to change the nation city by city. I was given key roles in the development and implementation of the affirmative action and equal opportunity contracting policies as well as negotiation and defense of the largest contract in Chicago history, the design and construction of the People Mover System at O’Hare airport. I am gratified we overhauled the city’s purchasing system and permitted minority businesses to win a greater portion of city contracts. Interestingly my value was recognized by a predominantly Black administration and I was retained when my boss was fired by the mayor two years after I was hired.

Personal experience: Reunion seminars ‘Divorce and the Notre Dame Experience’

In 1983 I was struggling with the personal impact of a divorce and Fr. Hesburgh was the guest speaker at the Universal Notre Dame Night in my hometown, Joliet. In an afternoon session with local alumni I thanked Fr. Hesburgh for the University’s sponsorship and hosting of the annual meeting of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics and asked him about his recently publicized ministry to divorced Catholics. He said that all he ever wanted to be was a priest and he welcomed every opportunity to minister. The following year I was asked by Notre Dame Alumni Director Chuck Lennon, a lifelong friend and classmate, to present a first-time seminar on divorce at the annual 1984 reunion on campus. Chuck informed me that Fr. Hesburgh recommended the University reach out to divorced alumni and agreed to a reunion seminar presented by me as a divorced alumnus and a representative of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics. The seminar provided me with another opportunity to contribute to a moral cause larger than myself and help fellow alumni cope with the trauma of divorce. The seminar was well received and I presented a second seminar at the 1985 Reunion.

These professional and personal experiences inspired and enabled by Fr. Hesburgh and Chuck Lennon were turning points in my life that gave me opportunities to make a difference in addressing two significant ethical and moral issues that continue to afflict our society. The reform of the Purchasing Department of the City of Chicago had an effect in the battle against racism and discrimination that continues to plague our country today. The Reunion Seminars “Divorce and the Notre Dame Experience” began a University ministry to divorced alumni and addresses the alienation of divorced Catholics by the Church that Pope Francis continues to deal with now.

I am forever appreciative for my good fortune to attend the University of Notre Dame and practice the moral and ethical values learned there to “make my own mark” in two difficult social challenges of our time.

Topics: BBA