The conversation happened nearly 30 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was coming to the end of my junior year in high school and was sitting in the guidance counselor's office. We were looking over my transcripts and the my college board scores, which were pretty good.
"Mark, you've had a good career here at Xavier," the counselor began. "You are in the top 10 in your class and your board scores are in the 97th percentile. That's really good."
"Thank you, sir," I replied.
"I'm really happy about this, because I think you'll have an excellent chance to get into Notre Dame," he continued.
Notre Dame. The Golden Dome. The shining goal of all kids attending midwestern Catholic high schools. I had made the grade. I was supposed to be happy about this, judging from the grin on the counselor's face. This was supposed to be the best news I'd received in my life.
Then I said it. "Well, sir, that's good, but I don't want to go to Notre Dame."
He looked at me as though I had broke wind in the chapel. "Mark, if you have the credentials to go to Notre Dame, you really need to go there. Don't you understand what this means?"
I did understand. All my life I'd been told about Notre Dame. I'd seen the highlight films on television. I'd heard the stories about my high school's proudest son, Rocky Bleier, who was a star running back at Notre Dame, then survived injury in Vietnam to become a key member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were winning championships at the time. I'd met the alumni, who were pillars of the local community. I'd read the commentaries of Father Hesburgh. And here I was, with an opportunity to be a part of it all. And I didn't want it.
The counselor then asked if I wanted to go to Marquette instead, or maybe St. Norbert. No, I replied, I wanted to go someplace else. I told him the schools I was considering and he begrudgingly dug through his files to find the information he had on each. Our time was up and the next student was waiting. He looked at me one last time and said it again.
"Mark, you really should go to Notre Dame."
After that day, I was pretty much on my own as far as the school's guidance department was concerned.
There are many, many Catholic universities in the country. The most prestigious is probably Georgetown, but Notre Dame is the one that matters. It is the ideal for many Catholics, especially Catholics who live in the Midwest. It is probably the most visible symbol of Catholicism in this country. And while I had no interest in matriculating there, and don't regret the decision I made all those years ago, I recognize the power and importance of the place. These days Notre Dame is in the news for other reasons. I'll be writing about the controversy, which involves the invitiation of President Obama to speak at this year's commencement address, and what it means, in the coming days.