Oct. 27, 2016
By Denise Skwarcan
Since 1980 the Brennan-Boland-Riehle Scholarship Fund has awarded $5,013,654 to University of Notre Dame students who are sons and daughters of monogram winners.
The Catastrophic Relief/Heaton Fund has provided over $200,000 to Monogram Club members and their families in need.
More than 200 current and former Notre Dame student-athletes have been connected to career opportunities as a result of their involvement in the Monogram Career Network, which was founded in 2014.
In addition, the Moose Krause Distinguished Service Award goes annually to active members who have distinguished themselves in the following ways: exemplary performance in local, state or national government; outstanding dedication to the spirit and ideals of Notre Dame; demonstrated responsibility to and concern for their respective communities, or extraordinary commitment and involvement with youth. Recipients include Alan Page (the 2016 awardee), Lou Holtz, Jerome Bettis and Ruth Riley.
The Monogram Club also annually awards two postgraduate scholarships of $5,000 each to senior monogram winners (one male, one female) in recognition of outstanding academic achievement and potential for success in postgraduate study.
And twice a year the Monogram Club holds letter-jacket ceremonies to formally present awards to first-year monogram-winners-with the events including invited family members and remarks from a former Irish student-athlete.
Those qualify as just six of the most noteworthy current major initiatives of the University of Notre Dame Monogram Club. They represent a half-dozen of the largest candles on the birthday cake that celebrates the Monogram Club’s 100th anniversary in 2016.
It’s a tradition-rich organization that has made a variety of impactful programming changes and additions in recent years as the club works to live up to its mission: “Bridging the Gap Between Legend and Legacy”
It began in the 19th century, the idea of giving athletes a varsity letter, or monogram, as an award for their athletic achievements. Notre Dame began doing it in 1887 when the University first fielded a football team. It would be almost 30 years before the University formed the Notre Dame Monogram Club, an organization reflective of its time and steeped in unchanging tradition for years. However, since its birth 100 years ago, that club has grown and evolved in a way that its founding fathers never would have–or could have–imagined.
“The idea of a fraternity, and I use that word because it was male-dominant just like the University was until the early 1970s, was born out of the football program,” says Brant Ust, current executive director of the Notre Dame Monogram Club who graduated from Notre Dame in 2001 and lettered in baseball. “We had been bestowing varsity letters or monograms since the inception of varsity sports which pre-dates 1916 at Notre Dame, and it was (former Irish football coach) Frank Hering who had an idea for this special group. But it was really (former Notre Dame football coaches) Jesse Harper and Knute Rockne who made sure this group had function, purpose and some sort of organization to it in 1916, and it was predominantly football-laden for the longest time.
“As time went on, sports were being added and the club evolved to be much more inclusive. The club that exists now is nothing like its original essence, I imagine, but in a good way. Now it’s really representative and indicative of our diverse sports and the importance of the female presence within Notre Dame athletics, and that’s kept us modern.”
In the Beginning
By 1916, Harper and Rockne, who first played for Harper and then became his assistant coach, had made Notre Dame football a household name, scheduling games with national powerhouses and effectively using the downfield forward pass. Rockne would take over two years later and make Notre Dame football legendary with three national championships, the Four Horsemen and his “Win One for the Gipper” speech.
Besides football, baseball, basketball and track and field were the only other sports that existed on the Notre Dame campus prior to 1923, after which tennis (1923), cross country (1923), golf (1930) and fencing (1934) made their debuts. The total number of varsity team sports would increase to 11 by 1958 (today there are 26–13 for men and 13 for women), but Notre Dame athletics was dominated by football (and would continue to be so for years to come)… as was the Monogram Club which had remained status quo.
“I didn’t receive my monogram until I was a senior, so I wasn’t exposed to the club that much,” says 1958 Notre Dame graduate Marty Allen who earned his varsity letter as the head football manager. “It just wasn’t what it is now… the club then was nothing compared to what it is today.”
“Nothing,” says Mike Heaton, a 1968 grad who lettered in football and golf, when asked what he knew about the Monogram Club when he was at Notre Dame. “The club was not particularly relevant to the current student-athlete at that time. It wasn’t like today where they have a beautiful letter-jacket ceremony and the parents are invited. We went into the equipment room, and there was an older fellow behind the counter and he would just throw a jacket at you and ask if it fit. I don’t even think we realized it came from the Monogram Club. It was like in high school where you work real hard, you do what they ask you to do in the sports you play and then you get your letter, or monogram, as they say.”
Changes in the air
In 1972 the University made a decision that would forever alter the landscape of the campus–and eventually the Monogram Club as well (although that would still be several years down the road).
“I think, understandably so, the big change came when they allowed women into the University,” says Allen. “I always remember (former Notre Dame president) Father (Theodore) Hesburgh saying, ‘It was a simple solution… just look on top of the Golden Dome. You’ll see a lady there, and do I think she would like to have ladies here? I think she would.'”
It would be another five years before a women’s varsity sport-basketball–appeared on the scene. While women also now earned varsity letters for participation just like their male counterparts, the Monogram Club remained a largely anonymous part of most student-athletes’ lives.
“The first inkling I had that there was a Monogram Club? It was in 1975 when I came back after being in the Navy and I found out that if I wanted to get tickets to a Notre Dame home football game I could apply for monogram seats,” says Heaton, who went on to graduate from the Notre Dame Law School in 1971.
“I could get two seats if I applied and paid the money because I was a monogram winner. Then sometime after that I became aware of the annual meeting and golf outing they had around graduation time. I started participating in that event and probably only participated on my anniversary year from graduation. I would participate in the golf outing and stay for my reunion.
“The men who ran the Monogram Club ran it for a very specific purpose and that was to raise money for scholarships for the sons and daughters of monogram winners (through the Brennan-Boland-Riehle Scholarship Fund). I had been on scholarship, so I believed that raising money for that was a noble purpose. But that was generally the only time you ever heard from (the Monogram Club) other than when they would send you a notice of dues.”
But then along came a trio of Monogram Club presidents who decided that the status quo had become stale.
The evolution began with Dan Shannon, a former football All-American who was the Monogram Club president from 1995-97, followed by Allen (1997-99) and then Heaton (1999-01). Shannon, who was an accountant, brought a business philosophy with him which he applied to the organization through strategic planning and work with the budget. Allen and Heaton continued the work which was further buoyed by former athletics director Kevin White who arrived at Notre Dame in 2000.
“The Monogram Club shifted gears because of Dan Shannon, Marty Allen and myself–and then when Kevin White came in everything really changed,” Heaton said. “(White) came to us and asked if we could help the administration relative to awards for current student-athletes if they won NCAA championships or conference championships and we said we could. We also helped raise money for the updated changes to Heritage Hall.”
Heritage Hall, located on the second floor of the Joyce Center, is home to hundreds of photos, trophies and other pieces of memorabilia dating back to the beginning of Notre Dame athletics. It also houses the Ring of Names, which features the name of every individual who has earned a monogram at Notre Dame.
“I met once with a company that was doing the planning of the athletic portion of campus, and these people had been all over the country,” Allen says. “They said they had never seen anything like having every name posted on a wall like we did in Heritage Hall. That was a big thing to have a facility like that, and something we were very proud of.
“We took the course of those three terms (as president) and really tried to turn the Monogram Club around. We met with senior members of the University, including the president and the executive vice president, annually and we got our mission statement in line with the University… that was another major thing that changed the Monogram Club.”
Let There Be…Women
Another piece of the puzzle started to come together before Shannon, Allen and Heaton had ascended to the president’s chair. By 1993 Shannon and Allen were already in the presidency rotation (serving two years as second vice president, two years as first vice president and then two years as president), while Heaton would join the group shortly thereafter. At that point they knew it was time for women to be part of the Monogram Club decision-making process. Women had, after all, been earning varsity letters for two decades. “We all had daughters, and we were ready to move forward,” Heaton says. “So we worked to bring women in as board members. We needed that perspective. We opened it up–not that it was closed–but it simply hadn’t been done prior to that.”
Allen reached out to former Irish volleyball player Julie Doyle and asked her to be part of the Monogram Club’s Board of Directors. Doyle, who earned her degree in mechanical engineering from Notre Dame in 1985, wasn’t the first female member of the board. But it put her on the path toward serving as the Monogram Club’s first female president.
“It wasn’t a very stringent vetting process,” Doyle says with a laugh when asked how she was appointed to the board. “But to their credit they were trying to diversify, and it opened the door for me.
“I did a three-year term (on the Board of Directors) and during that third year the person who was serving as secretary had to leave the board. I was very honored to be asked to fill that role.”
It also meant that Doyle’s role as secretary was for the indefinite future, whereas today there are no lifetime appointments in the Monogram Club. But Allen stepped in again to change that.
“There was no real precedent to say you’re only going to be doing this for a few years,” says Doyle. “But I loved being involved with it and watching the club grow. Then it was Marty Allen again who first asked if I would consider being president. I was very honored and it was very unexpected.”
Doyle served as president from 2005-07. She continued the work of presidents before her who strived to make the Monogram Club relevant with current student-athletes while also keeping graduated monogram members engaged with the club. Doyle, however, does warmly remember one person who might have been a little unsure about her at first.
“To look at it now, a humorous aspect of it was that Father (James) Riehle (the Monogram Club’s executive director from 1978-2002) was very old school,” Doyle says. “I loved him to death, but I think at that point he was still getting used to the idea that they let women into (the school) and play a sport–let alone to be on the Monogram Club board. His health was failing around the time that I was coming into the role of president, and I always used to joke that I didn’t want him to pass away on my watch because I pushed him over the edge as the first female president of the Monogram Club. Thankfully he didn’t (Riehle died in 2008). He could be curmudgeonly, but he was always there for me and I really miss him.”
Riehle, whose name is one of three on the Monogram Club scholarship fund, played a major role with the club during the same period he served as athletic department chaplain for nearly three decades.
“Father was a true Notre Dame man who dedicated his life to his faith and to the University,” said Jim Fraleigh, who joined Notre Dame athletics administrators Bill Scholl and Beth Hunter in holding the executive director role after Riehle’s death. “He touched the lives of thousands of Notre Dame students and student-athletes–and he was a driving force behind the initiatives of the Monogram Club.”
Doyle is now no longer the only woman to have served as the Monogram Club president. Haley Scott DeMaria (a 1995 graduate and former swimmer) served from 2013-15, and Terri Vitale (1994, tennis) will serve from 2017-19.
Connecting Past and Present
These days, the Monogram Club is more active than it’s ever been, with both graduated monogram winners and current student-athletes who have earned a varsity letter. And it’s no longer campus-centric. With approximately 8,000 living members (including former student-athletes, student managers, student athletic trainers, cheerleaders, video technicians and honorary recipients) scattered throughout the world and juggling careers and families, returning to South Bend for Monogram Club activities sometimes just isn’t always feasible. So the club is taking it on the road.
“In recent years, the club has moved many of its member events off campus–in an effort to expose the club to those who may not be able to return to campus for a football weekend,” says Kevin O’Connor, current Monogram Club president. “Our Monogram Career Network hosts regional networking events across the country and the club has hosted many regional social events in cities where the Irish football and men’s and women’s basketball teams have visited for away games.
“The club has also evolved into a charitable organization whereby we provide post-graduate scholarship assistance to current student athletes, undergraduate scholarship assistance to children of club members who attend Notre Dame and, most recently, financial assistance to club members and their families who fall upon hard times due to illness or natural disasters.
“These initiatives are just a few examples of how the Monogram Club has successfully transformed from a campus-centric social club into a national service organization.”
The newly formed Monogram Career Network, launched in 2014, supports athletics department career development programs by connecting current Notre Dame student-athletes with past monogram winners and other supporters of the Monogram Club. Even though it’s relatively new, it’s gaining significant traction.
“In addition to the social engagement with our monogram winners–both on campus and regionally–we’re also focusing on member benefits that will have a long-lasting career impact,” says Matt Weldy, Monogram Club associate director. “The Monogram Career Network has provided a meaningful way to engage our membership, while also offering an extremely valuable resource to our current student-athletes and alums. We’ve found success in partnering with ongoing athletics department career development programs through connecting current and former student-athletes based on industry, geographic location and sport. These connections have resulted in short-term internships and job shadows, networking conversations and an overall support system throughout the career discernment process. Student-athletes have a unique skill set and sometimes hearing perspectives and advice from someone who navigated through the same process helps build confidence and open doors.
“As a benefit and resource for our membership, we look to connect our alums with professional development opportunities. The Monogram Club recently announced a partnership with Notre Dame’s Stayer Center for Executive Education that allows us to provide discounted rates for club members. These programs can be a big asset for many of our members, especially those who are switching careers, looking to transition after their playing days are over or just want to supplement their professional development experience.”
Doing just what the Monogram Club’s mission statement says… bridging the gap between legend and legacy.
Into the Future
The club’s mission statement also notes that membership is an opportunity to form bonds, maintain relationships and engage socially and professionally. No longer content to rest on its laurels, the Monogram Club is giving its members the opportunity to do just that through creative, innovative activities and events. And, by all accounts, all those involved with the Monogram Club are proud of how it’s evolved.
“We are this resource, this connection to former student-athletes. How is that resource best applied or accessed by the current student-athletes and programs?” Ust asks. “That is done through the programs and initiatives we fund, from monogram awards to postseason awards to our growing Monogram Career Network and connecting them to former student-athletes that are in various industries and businesses, the scholarship fund, team hosting opportunities. Then there’s the external piece… providing that conduit for the monogram-winning alum back to the University, and planning programs and events that will create that affinity for Notre Dame and keep them engaged.
“The Monogram Club is so unique and so well-positioned. Not only with Notre Dame athletics but within the fabric of the University, with this unique subset of alumni who had a different or unique experience of not only being a Notre Dame alum but also a student-athlete. Many have gone on to accomplish many amazing and incredible things, and it’s great to be able to work with our board of directors who represent that membership at large and then align the passion and the energy from our membership and our board to that of our athletics director as to where and how it’s best to have our alumni and student-athletes engaged.”
The Notre Dame-Miami football weekend represents the official celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Notre Dame Monogram Club.
Adds Ust, “The Monogram Club has evolved significantly since its foundation in 1916 and we continue to be proactive in finding ways to keep our membership engaged as we build towards the next 100 years.”
Denise Skwarcan is a freelance writer from Elkhart, Indiana.