Nov. 10, 2011
By Todd D. Burlage
The year was 1935, and a brash 40-year-old named J. Edgar Hoover was grooming a new agency called the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation into the most powerful law-enforcement agency in the world.
About the same time, the University of Notre Dame had already established itself as a football power with three national championships between 1924 and 1930, and its reputation for academics was growing right alongside its football standing.
Maybe the relationship between Notre Dame, a prestigious university, and Hoover, the new FBI Director, stemmed out of a growing and mutual respect for one another.
Whatever the reasons, Hoover felt compelled to travel from Washington, D.C. in 1937 to deliver a speech at Notre Dame to celebrate the aggressive work the university was doing to help prevent and curb federal crime.
In return, Hoover received an honorary degree from Notre Dame as part of his commencement speech visit in 1942. The university also named Hoover the first recipient of Notre Dame’s Patriot of the Year award, an honor bestowed on a public figure “who exemplifies the American ideals of justice, personal integrity and service to country.”
Even during Hoover’s early days as FBI director, his affinity for Notre Dame, its alumni, and its mission statement became clear when the FBI hired more agents from the Notre Dame alumni base than from any other university in the country. The roots of this relationship between Hoover and Notre Dame were established in the 1930s, but they bloomed in the 1950s when more than 130 Notre Dame graduates became agents on the FBI payroll at one time.
As evidence to the amount of attention Hoover gave to the events at Notre Dame, the bureau chief publicly lauded a symposium at the university in 1950, an event designed to raise awareness to the evils of Soviet Russia during the infancy of the Cold War.
“[The symposium findings] penetrate to the very core of the Communist problem,” Hoover said. “… So Notre Dame can continue to enlarge their knowledge of this cancerous growth on society.”
Notre Dame has provided many well-known FBI Secret Service agents through the years, many of which were Irish football players during their time on campus.
Aubrey Lewis was a halfback at Notre Dame who played alongside Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung in the mid 1950s. Lewis was also a track star and became the first African-American to become a captain of an athletic team at Notre Dame. After graduation, Lewis was recruited by the bureau as one of the first two African-Americans to go through the FBI training academy.
”I wanted to do a lot of things, to challenge life,” Lewis said in a New York Times story that celebrated his life. ”I came along at a time when there were many doors to be opened by the black man, and that was a challenge to me.” Lewis died in 2001 at the age of 66.
Harvey G. Foster may be the best-known Secret Service agent to graduate from Notre Dame. Foster, a South Bend native, played offensive guard for the Irish in 1936-37. He received his degree from Notre Dame in 1939 and became president of the Notre Dame Alumni Association after graduation.
Foster eventually became the head of the FBI’s New York Division from 1958 to 1962 where he earned accolades as one of the nation’s best pistol marksmen and a top firearms instructor on the FBI academy staff. Foster died of a heart attack in 1981 at the age of 68.
Cornelius “Corny” Southall, who played free safety on Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship football team, wore his title ring while serving as the lead advance agent for the Secret Service team that protected President George W. Bush during his commencement visit in 2001. Troy Wilson, a cornerback for the Irish from 1983-86, was also part of the detail that protected President Bush.
Hundreds of Secret Service and FBI agents from the Notre Dame Family have served and been involved in many important missions since the 1930s. But maybe the most vivid and tragic story from Notre Dame’s Secret Service alumni comes from agent Todd Rassas.
A three-time lacrosse All-American and a dominating defenseman at Notre Dame from 1995-98, Rassas earned a spot on the U.S. National lacrosse team in 2002 and helped guide it to a World Championship with a victory over Canada.
Rassas was balancing his lacrosse preparations for the World Championships with a new career in the Secret Service, where one of the important responsibilities he held was to help protect then President George W. Bush.
At an point early in his Secret Service career, Rassas was working out of the New York field office, located in the World Trade Center, and he was at his desk on Sept. 11, 2001, when a hijacked airplane hit the first of the twin towers in the horrific terrorist attacks.
Rassas’ office was in 7 World Trade Center, and after helping as many survivors as time and safety would allow, Rassas realized the moment had come for him to get out of danger, if it wasn’t too late.
In an article that first appeared in the September/October 2002 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, Rassas recounts that tragic day as the second World Trade Center tower began to collapse:
“A number of agents regrouped and returned to look for survivors. We got about a block and a half away from the remaining tower when I saw the top floor drop. I turned and started running for my life. All I could think about was my dad saying, `when you have the ball, never look back because it makes you run slower.’ I thought I was going to get crushed. If the tower would have fallen a little more towards the Hudson River I would not be here today. I feel very fortunate to have survived this attack. The victims of Sept. 11 are in my thoughts and prayers every day.”
A Presidential Presence
In a 2001 article for Notre Dame Magazine titled “All the president’s visits,” author Richard Conklin shared an interesting account regarding the presence of the United States Secret Service during a visit to Notre Dame by President Gerald Ford in 1975.
“At a dinner for the Midwest governors atop the Memorial Library, a Secret Service man stationed outside the door to the holding kitchen watched as the wait staff brought out the entrees. `That one,’ he said randomly, and the plate toward which he had nodded was served to President Ford. In short, if you intended to poison the president, you had to poison everybody.”
Notre Dame students, alumni and Secret Service agents have been heavily involved in the protection of the U.S. President during each of the six times a standing Commander and Chief came to South Bend to deliver a commencement speech.
Each Presidential visit to campus means detailed planning, and extensive interaction between personnel at Notre Dame, the Secret Service and the White House. And select members of the Notre Dame alumni with positions in the FBI have always helped smooth the process during these visits.
Commencement appearances require additional coordination with Notre Dame Campus Security, Student Affairs, Special Events, Food Services, Public Relations and the Joyce Center staff. Every movement the President makes is planned almost to the second, down to the “friendly” reminder to graduating students that an event with the President as the featured guest may not be the best venue to pop a champagne cork.
Following are details from the visits that the six standing U.S. Presidents have made to Notre Dame to deliver commencement speeches.
1960 – President Dwight D. Eisenhower cut out early from the 45th reunion of his class at the U.S. Military to make the trip to South Bend.
1977 – President Jimmy Carter delivered an important foreign policy address when he prophetically spoke of the diminishing threat from the Soviet Union.
1981 – President Ronald Reagan condemned Communism during the first public appearance he made after the assassination attempt on him two months earlier.
1992 – President George H.W. Bush used the commencement platform to deliver his speech on the importance of family values and improving a commitment to society.
2001 – President George W. Bush declared the nation’s faith-based organizations were key to the war on poverty during his first presidential commencement address.
2009 – President Barack Obama responded to campus protesters during a commencement speech that touched on his views toward abortion rights and stem-cell research.