Sept. 27, 2001
By Steve Heisler
In 1957, Lana Turner was earning an Oscar nomination for her role in “Peyton Place,” an upstart named Elvis was buying a Memphis property called Graceland and the Russians were celebrating the launch of a space vehicle named Sputnik.
In South Bend in late November that year, Notre Dame was rejoicing in an ascent of another kind, as the Fighting Irish cross country team won an unlikely national championship. The Irish harriers’ rise to prominence, culminating in an NCAA meet victory at Michigan State, is celebrated again when members of that team reunite at today’s game.
Dale VandenBerg, the ’57 team captain, remembers the team’s improbable success one season removed from a sixth-place NCAA finish. The Irish did return five monogram winners in 1957 and a repeat of a Central Collegiate Conference crown was a distinct possibility. A national championship, however, was not.
“None of us realized just what we could achieve,” VandenBerg said. “I think we just kept getting better and never realized how good we were going to get.”
Notre Dame’s improvement was buoyed by regular-season victories that included two of three triumphs in dual meets, a first place in a six-team meet and the Indiana State and Central Collegiate Conference crowns. That road to success, from Bloomington to East Lansing and spots around the Midwest, also was marked by one vehicle: Coach Alex Wilson’s nine-passenger station wagon.
Memories of that none-too-spacious auto’s make differ – VandenBerg thinks it was a Ford and teammate Galen Cawley is sure it was a Buick – but all agree its close quarters made for excellent on-road bonding.
“If you’ve ever been in a nine-passenger station wagon, sitting in the back isn’t much fun,” said VandenBerg, now a retired civil engineer in East Lansing.
“Sitting like on a stool with no legs on it. You jam eight men in a vehicle like that, it’s something you never forget, especially when you’re stuffed in it down to Bloomington or wherever.”
Cawley, who like Dave Cotton was a sophomore on that squad, said the camaraderie those close quarters engendered helped Notre Dame as the season progressed.
“It was a big old boat as I recall,” Cawley said from his home in Colon, Mich.
“I don’t remember any discomfort except the middle front seat. We had fun, we’d get a little pumped up about going to a race.”
To John Burns, a senior in 1957 and now a district attorney in Oregon, those journeys allowed the runners to understand Wilson, a two-time Olympian considered the greatest middle distance runner in school history.
“He was the world’s worst driver, I don’t know how we survived,” Burns said with a chuckle.
“He was a good family man and he didn’t play favorites. We all had enormous respect for him.”
During those rides, a team with many quality runners but no stars grew closer. Senior Ed Monnelly, who had been Chicago’s high school Catholic champion, was the top finisher for Notre Dame in all but two meets. VandenBerg, the Michigan high school half-mile champion, took first in the others with Cotton and senior Vic Dillon among those helping assure that Notre Dame would surpass expectations.
Haverty, Dillon and Burns were walk-ons.
“Did we have an Alberto Salazar or a Steve Prefontaine? No we didn’t,” Burns said.
“Ed Monnelly was the most self-effacing guy in the world. If Cotton beat him or Dale beat him, they didn’t go around and mope. We really, really meshed.”
Said Cawley: “They were spunky runners. We were able to group in the first four runners in a nice tight group.”
Notre Dame also received a boost from its performance in the ICAAAA meet that season at Van Cortland Park in New York. The Irish finished second on a hilly course against competition that included East Coast powerhouses Georgetown and Villanova.
“That was, I think, a big step,” VandenBerg said.
“It was significant and allowed us to measure ourselves against the traditional powerhouses.”
Cawley, a retired airline pilot, remembers the ICAAAAs as an occasion when Notre Dame’s coach could push his charges in his own subdued manner.
“Alex was a big believer in self-motivation,” Cawley said.
“He just knew we knew it was the best (competition) there was and we had to give what we could.”
As Burns remembers it, that wasn’t difficult, given the demanding practice schedules Wilson imposed.
“We had decided if we were going to win the ICAAAAs, we had to go out as a pack and run fast,” Burns said.
“As a team we trained harder than hell and those were unforgiving, miserable days on the golf course. We just peaked.”
The Irish reached their zenith a week later at East Lansing, beating the defending champion Spartans by six points and besting the rest of the 48-team field. Notre Dame showed its balance by placing five runners in the top 45. Monnelly was the top Irish finisher in 14th place, followed by Cotton (19th) and VandenBerg (24th). Dillon came in 27th and Haverty followed him in 37th place.
“We did not go into that race expecting to win,” Dillon, now an orthodontist in Gaithersburg, Md., said.
“I think it was a combination of a couple of our guys stepping up and theirs not running as good as expected.”
For VandenBerg and Burns, the final image as that day concluded near Michigan State’s Jenison Field House was of Wilson exulting in his team’s victory. The squad had dealt with an early season bout of Asiatic flu – not to mention all those long, cramped car rides – and won it all.
“There was a picture taken right after we got the trophies and he has this look of pride in his eyes,” VandenBerg said.
“It’s really kind of nice. It’s a kind of pinnacle that made us special to him.”
Said Burns: “One of the memories I have is I was so glad for Alex that we won it. I was so glad we beat Michigan State.”
As he prepared to join other members from the ’57 championship squad today, Burns reflected on the journey his own life has taken, from those days 44 years ago in Wilson’s station wagon. He used his education to become the president of the Oregon State Senate and a managing partner of one of the largest law firms in the Pacific Northwest.
“I’d trade both of those away to not give up my Notre Dame experience,” he said.
“What a seminal experience, to have the opportunity to go to Notre Dame and participate in athletics. It paved the way for everything else.”
-Steve Heisler is a free-lance writer who lives in Centreville, Va.