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President’s Message / Enjoying the Conversation

Notre Dame’s legendary women’s basketball coach, Ann “Muffet” McGraw, was in the green room behind the Walter Theatre stage, only moments away from addressing our “Sport & Society in America” national conference. The topic of this year’s program, which we host in conjunction with the Green Bay Packers, was women in sports, and we were fortunate to have one of the most successful in history delivering a keynote address.

I was the only other person in the room as the coach sat at a small table, intently reviewing her speech, page by page – and all the while her left leg was twitching like a piston. I found her anxiousness reassuring, actually, since our image of Muffet is of the no-nonsense commander who performs so confidently before tens of thousands of screaming fans. She looked over at me and smiled. “Pregame,” she said with a chuckle. “I hate pregame.”

Having world-class visitors to campus is one of the privileges of working at St. Norbert College. These people teach us, challenge us, inspire us.

At the conference, for instance, Muffet McGraw’s appearance was bookended by that of Christine Brennan, USA Today’s lead sports columnist and a highly respected author and television commentator. Chris’ topic was the enduring importance of the landmark Title IX legislation, which four decades ago provided young women athletic opportunities equal to those of young men, and in the process changed American society forever.

Another prominent guest this spring was the author, feminist and social critic bell hooks, whose address was the centerpiece of the Cassandra Voss Center’s inaugural year. As bell doesn’t make many appearances in our part of the world, she packed the Walter not only with SNC folks but students who bused in from other colleges. She wowed us all with her wit and insight. But my favorite part of bell’s visit was the small dinner party beforehand in which she had us in stitches with stories about life in Kentucky – where she was born and now works – and the eternal challenges of looking for love.

Before that we hosted Eboo Patel, the charismatic Chicagoan who founded Interfaith Youth Core and has advised President Obama. He brought us his message about the imperative of interfaith understanding. No one is saying people of different backgrounds must fully agree with one another, Eboo said. But if we work to find those areas where we do agree, then we at least have some hope of mutual understanding.

I must say, however, that one of our most compelling speakers this year was our last one. People say you never remember your Commencement speaker, but that will not be true for St. Norbert’s Class of 2014.

Chris Ayers graduated from SNC not all that long ago – in 1997, in fact – and he quickly built a successful career in Hollywood as an artist and illustrator. He may not have the name recognition of a bell hooks or Eboo Patel, but if you’ve ever seen “Men in Black 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” the “Star Trek” franchise or any of the two dozen other films Chris has had a hand in, you’ve appreciated his work.

Even more than his talent, we admire Chris for his courageous spirit. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, he devised creative ways to stay positive. One way: Draw a new and whimsical creature every day. His menagerie grew and grew, and in time Chris collected them into a book, “The Daily Zoo.” He still produces these drawings, even with his disease long into remission. He has just published his fourth book, and as before, part of the proceeds from each sale goes to cancer-related charities and research.

Chris told our grads not to let illness or professional setbacks or anything else keep them from realizing their potential. And he coordinated his remarks with dozens and dozens of his “Daily Zoo”creations, stitching the whole into a presentation as funny as it was poignant.

And authentic. “Be hopeful,” Chris said, speaking from experience. “In dark and difficult times, find and hold onto the light, whether that light comes from above, inside you, or within someone else. Hang on to hope – it is so very precious.”

If you could use a little inspiration yourself, go to the Commencement website and check out Chris’ presentation.

July 9, 2014