The lives of Don Briel and Bill Dempsey
I recently read a wonderful tribute to a distinguished man who has worked selflessly in and for the Church for the past forty years. In an article marking his retirement from service to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the brilliant Fran Maier is quoted as saying that “Christianity is fundamentally about friendship and helping each other get to heaven.” His astute remark prompted reflection for me on friends who have encouraged and helped sustain me over my entire life, and especially during my service as a priest-teacher at Notre Dame. I am truly in debt to exemplary confreres in my Order, to generous colleagues on campus, and to treasured friends beyond the campus—many, my former students—who have shared their lives and struggles with me and, in turn, have supported me as I have navigated my way forward, especially through the
difficult times that come for us all. A good number of them now have passed from this life, but—and fortunately for me many remain.
I lift them all up to the Lord in prayer, but in this brief reflection I want to draw attention to two notable individuals. Both graduated from Notre Dame and always wanted the best for Our Lady’s university. One is living and one is deceased. I trust learning a little about them might be of interest to Rover readers. Their lives assuredly stand as exemplars for those who want to understand better the gift of friendship.
The second anniversary of Don Briel’s death is approaching. He died on February 15, 2018, surrounded by close family and friends, after conducting a master class in how to die during the month after learning that he suffered from an incurable form of cancer. Don studied at Notre Dame in the late 1960s and was much influenced by the legendary teacher Frank O’Malley, who instilled deep love for the Catholic intellectual tradition, particularly John Henry Newman and Christopher Dawson. Don went on to obtain a doctorate in theology and then began a long period of service at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Recognizing clearly the hollowing out that was occurring on Catholic campuses, Don had the imagination, and also the courage and leadership abilities, to found the Catholic Studies Center in 1993 at St. Thomas. While secularization marched forward on many nominally Catholic campuses, Don’s efforts and their replication elsewhere has helped keep the light of Catholic higher education burning brightly.
I first met Don in the early 1990s and thereafter had regular contact with him both at St. Thomas and at Notre Dame, where he often visited. He normally attended and contributed to the annual Fall Conference of the Center for Ethics and Culture, after it was launched by David Solomon. Like David, Don wanted to shape a community of friends unashamedly engaged in the pursuit of truth. I came to appreciate Don as a truly good and virtuous man. How I miss the phone conversations we had. Don was not as given to general “bloviating” as I am, but he tolerated some of mine while at the same time keeping a certain thoughtful focus to our conversations. Any exchange with him always helped clarify for me the course I must pursue. I learned much from him and valued the encouragement that he offered that I continue on with my own modest efforts to promote and defend the Catholic mission of Notre Dame. He helped strengthen me not to simply acquiesce to the hollowing out that was occurring at Notre Dame. Additionally, and early on, he helped me keep in perspective the criticism and occasional marginalization that comes when one refuses to comply with actions that clearly undermine the Catholic mission of the university. Don gave me special support as I completed my biography of Father Hesburgh. That was a testimony to friendship!
Through our varied interactions I grew to understand just how much Don loved his students in Catholic Studies and wanted them to benefit from an integrated education, one which addressed the whole person. Don loved the Church, despite its many flaws, and he saw his work in Catholic Studies as an ecclesial effort–this was Ex corde ecclesiae in action for him. He took seriously the instruction that Frank O’Malley gave his students to “cherish your Catholic heritage and redeem the time.” His witness surely will live on through the efforts of his many students and friends.
William H. (Bill) Dempsey graduated from Notre Dame almost twenty years before Don. He was the class valedictorian in 1952. Some might think that by now he should have retired to enjoy an occasional round of golf or whatever, but Bill refuses to idle away his days. He understands that there is a battle occurring at Notre Dame over its present identity and future course. He and the Sycamore Trust, which he leads, are willing to engage in this fight. I am deeply grateful to God that our paths have crossed as we have found ourselves comrades-in-arms in this struggle to secure what is best in Notre Dame.
Bill grew up in New Ulm, Minnesota, where he met and later married his wonderful wife Mary. After Notre Dame he attended Yale Law School, clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren, went on to a distinguished legal career with a Washington law firm, and eventually served as president of the Association of American Railroads.
Bill sent one of his sons to Notre Dame and over the years, like most well-meaning alumni, he generally accepted the endless favorable reports and “brand promotion” churned out by the Notre Dame public relations machine. That came to an end with the Vagina Monologues fiasco in 2006, after which he helped form the Sycamore Trust. He joined with other concerned alumni in shaping a group to address the weakening of the Catholic identity of the university. Bill quickly realized that the Monologues episode was a mere symptom, and that the fundamental issue threatening the Catholic mission of Notre Dame was the radical reduction in the proportion of committed Catholics on the faculty.
Subsequently, Bill and his colleagues in the Sycamore Trust have worked tirelessly to promote serious reflection on Notre Dame. There is some fear of critical discussion of the present state and future direction of Notre Dame on campus, and there is even some desire to suppress it from an administration that only wishes to facilitate distribution of a controlled message. The carefully researched and lucid Sycamore bulletins provide an honest picture of what is occurring at Notre Dame. They both acknowledge the good that occurs and address the failures of the administration and other individuals and entities to uphold the University’s Catholic mission. Sycamore’s attention to faculty hiring has been of special importance and one can only wish that Bill’s insight on this matter was shared by the fellows and trustees of Notre Dame, who so often seem asleep at the wheel.
My associations with Bill Dempsey might have remained more on the level of a professional association as we pursued certain shared convictions about Notre Dame but, over the past fourteen years, we have moved far beyond that. I visit him when I can, and we converse and correspond often. (How he keeps up with his correspondence I do not know!) I have come to admire and to benefit greatly from his integrity, his courage and his willingness to speak the truth. No issue scares him––he has been willing in recent years to challenge the confused proponents of gender ideology and progressive ‘wokeness’ on campus, who seem determined to tear at the university’s Catholic character.
I can only pray that some of Bill’s virtue has rubbed off on me. It has been a true blessing that, while seemingly being on the “losing side” of so much that has happened at Notre Dame over the past two decades, I have gained such friends as Bill and Mary Dempsey. As with Don Briel, my regular communications with Bill help sustain me in my ministry. Bill’s determination and willingness to persevere in his efforts serve as a challenge. He is like Caleb from the Book of Joshua, still willing to lead from the front despite his age. He provides inspiration for me.
These two friends shared much in their faith, their courage and their hopes for their alma mater. No defeat of the moment could deter them because they possessed an awareness that we are all part of a larger drama that is not obvious to those whose perspective is only that of this world. Just like Fran Maier, whose service merited his enrollment as a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Francis, these two good men recognised that we must be about helping each other get to heaven. They understood the Lord’s counsel to follow His example and instruction in being willing to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13-14). I am so fortunate to count them among my friends. May we continue to be the beneficiaries of such friendships and be guided to serve as such friends in the lives of others.
Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., teaches in the History Department and is a member of the Rover’s Faculty Advisory Board. He is on leave this year and serves as the Randall Chair in Christian Culture at Providence College.