Walter O'Keefe was born in August 1900 in Hartford, Connecticut, and attended the
College of the Sacred Heart in Wimbledon, England, before entering Notre Dame in 1916. A
member of the Glee Club and a Class Poet, he was graduated cum laude in 1921. A Midwest
vaudeville performer for several years, O'Keefe went to New York in 1925 and performed on
Broadway. By 1937 he wrote a syndicated humor column and filled in for network radio stars
such as Walter Winchell, Edgar Bergen, Don McNeill and Gary Moore. He became the long-time
master of ceremonies of the NBC show, "Double or Nothing:' and was a regular on that
network's "Monitor" series. O'Keefe was also a songwriter responsible for the
musical scores of several Hollywood films. He died in 1983 and is survived by his wife and
Come Along Out
1916? IT WAS NOT what you would call
a really big year. A war was going on in Europe, but over here people were more interested
in reading about General Pershing chasing Pancho Villa into Mexico. There was an
unsuccessful uprising in Ireland; the United States bought the Virgin Islands from
Denmark; Carl Sandburg published his Chicago Poems. And, not far from Chicago, a
16-year-old boy-himself a virgin of Irish extraction-entered the University of Notre Dame,
where he would one day become Class Poet and briefly leave school to try following General
Pershing to France.
But, more important, I would live at the home of Knute Rockne and sit in class next to
George Gipp while both of those immortals were still mortal, and I would have experiences
and learn things-many of which I would have to relearn-which would still be with me more
than 60 years later.
How did a boy from Hartford, Connecticut, who had been only
recently studying in Jesuit halls at Wimbledon, England, find his way to the wilds of
Indiana? It was, one might say, a process of elimination. I eliminated my neighboring
colleges, Trinity in Hartford and Yale in New Haven, because they were, heaven forbid,
Protestant. Then Holy Cross, Fordham and Catholic University proceeded to eliminate me by
replying with rejections to my letters of application. But from Notre Dame came this
welcome note on the stationery of the president of the University:
Any boy who can write a letter like that at your age belongs here at Notre Dame. Come
along out and we shall take care of you.
Cordially, John W. Cavanaugh, C.S.C.
My first reaction to the Midwest as the train passed
through those soon-to-be familiar stops at Cleveland, Toledo and Elkhart was one of
amazement at its flatness. But that was forgotten when I reached the beautiful campus,
rich with autumnal colors and green lawns. As students hurried along the walks, I picked
up salutes and hellos from everyone who passed. I felt at home. That campus was the most
beautiful thing I had ever seen.
After making my way to the office of the president of the
University, I heard his secretary announce through the open door, "Father Cavanaugh,
Walter O'Keefe is here-that seminarian from Hartford, Connecticut." At that time I
did intend to become a priest.
Father Cavanaugh's welcome was warm and hearty. Handsome,
urbane, witty, in love with life, he was a great man indeed. As he introduced me to an
archbishop who happened to be his guest, he said, "Your Eminence, I don't know how
accurate an ecclesiastical prophet I am, but in the person of this boy, you may be looking
at the first American pope!"
Two weeks later, I had a job as assistant bartender in the
Elks Temple in South Bend, on duty from 5 in the afternoon until I in the moming-hardly
proper training for a Pope-to-be! (The Elks, I must say, did not know that I was only 16).
Meanwhile, because no accommodations were available on campus, I had to fmd a place to
stay in town. On St. Louis Boulevard, I spotted a large, two-story house which looked
homey and comfortable. I rang the doorbell and when the housewife answered, I said,
"Do the Robinsons live here?"
(I, of course, knew no Robinsons in South Bend, or anyone else for that matter. My
question was a figurative foot in the door.)
"No," the lady said. "The Robinsons don't live here." "Oh,"
said I. "I was told the Robinsons lived here and that they might have a room for a
student. Do you have a room for a student?"
She hesitated. "I hadn't thought about it that way, but we do have a spare room
upstairs. I suppose you go to the University."
"Yes, I do."
"Then you may know my husband-he's on the faculty,' "What's his name?"
"Mr. Rockne-he teaches chemistry."
"No, I'm afraid I don't know him. I'm taking an arts course."
"Why don't you come back at 6 o'clock this evening and meet the professor, and we'll
see," she said. That night at eight,
I moved in.
In 1916, in addition to his duties teaching chemistry, Rock was assistant coach to Jesse
Harper. At home, he was always warm and relaxed, but he could be the same inspirational
story teller that he became in the locker room. Sometimes, on nights when I wasn't
working, he would wander into my room and talk to me in that electrifying voice which was
to inspire a generation of great football teams.
He discovered that I was a good storyteller, too. Thus, after he was named head coach and
his fame increased and he received invitations to speak at banquets and conventions, he
would frequently say, "Get Walter O'Keefe to entertain for the early part." That
is how Rock became my first booking agent, and the experiences he provided me were
invaluable in my career as an entertainer.
Soon, however, my days as an off-campus entertainer came to an end. When Father Cavanaugh
learned that his candidate for the papacy was tending bar, he called me in.
"Walter, how do you make a stinger?" he asked.
I told him.
"You move to the campus immediately," he said. "We'll find you a place to
sleep in Sorin Hall."
Although I had to give up my job at the Elks Temple and go to work as a library assistant,
I felt a certain status as a freshman being assigned to Sorin Hall, named for the
University's founder and traditionally the home of seniors. Walsh Hall was new then-the
"Gold Coast" but Sorin had the tradition which it bears to this day.
I was a busy fellow with six hours of library work a day, occasional calls to entertain in
town and thereabouts, membership in the Glee Club and participation in other campus
activities, plus, of course, my classwork. Sitting next to me in economics was George
Gipp, who, with Rockne, was to put Notre Dame football on the map. As I saw George saunter
in each morning, I never dreamed that he was writing part of the script for the life of a
future President of the United States.
An unbelievably gifted athlete, George was as formidable in basketball and baseball as he
was in football. Before a game, he would walk nonchalantly to the center of the field,
carrying two footballs. One he would drop-kick through the goalposts at one end of the
field, then he would turn and drop-kick the other through the goalposts at the opposite
end, a bit of psychological warfare which never failed to impress our opponents.
Gipp, of course, was also a formidable pool and poker
player. I watched him beat the top pool hustlers in northern Indiana, and his poker
playing became almost as legendary as his prowess on the football field. Sometimes,
though, like Rock and the University authorities, I worried about his off-campus
activities. On the morning of a homecoming game with Purdue, I ran into him walking across
campus, bedraggled and dishevelled after an all-night poker game in Mishawaka.
"You son of a bitch!" I said. "You're supposed to play today!" He
plodded on without saying a word and that afternoon, early on, ran 65 yards downfield for
a touchdown. George was probably the first football superstar, even billed above the teams
on posters advertising coming games: "SEE GEORGE GIPP WHEN NOTRE DAME PLAYS
Despite the years that have gone by, many memories come flooding back of those years at
Notre Dame: the time classmates took me, unknowing, to a Chicago bordello, which I fled in
panic; the time I did my comedy act with the Glee Club to tremendous applause before an
audience of 3,000 at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, only to learn afterward that my fly was
open; my departure from Notre Dame to enlist in the Marines after World War I and my
return soon afterward after getting no closer to France than Alexandria, Virginia; my
stint as Class Poet, composition accompanied by generous draughts from a jug of wine; and,
finally, my graduation, amazingly cum laude, my thesis subject, appropriately, "The
Origin of Comedy."
Much of what Notre Dame taught me, I regret to say, lay
fallow for many years as I sought fame as performer, as song writer, onstage and on the
air, on Broadway and in Hollywood. But I like to think that those precious teachings were
there all the time, waiting until the day when I really needed them.
Today, after bouts with alcoholism, polio, heart attacks,
kidney stones, pneumonia, embolisms, broken legs, asthma, arthritis and, last but not
least, Old Nick, I am as happy in my life and in my faith as I was that September day,
long ago, when I first walked across that lovely campus in search of Father Cavanaugh. In
those days, South Bend boasted a raunchy dance hall called the Tokyo, off-limits to
students, which provided the inspirations for my first published song, "I'm Gonna
Dance Wit' Da Guy What Brung Me." I can't help feeling that it is appropriate that my
latest composition is a hymn, "Thy Will Be Done" an example of the long-lasting
power of other lessons learned at Notre Dame.
Back to Irish Reveries