Since I'm writing this
update on Memorial Day weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to honor one of Notre
Dame's own who lost his life when the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor. Here is
one of Herb's favorite stories from "Notre Dame Odyssey." The John Shillington
Remember the Maine!
The John Henry Shillington Story
There is a monument on the Notre Dame campus which stands as a reminder to "Remember
the Maine," although the monument itself is virtually forgotten.
For years the red granite monument stood in an obscure alcove behind the main steps of the
Administration Building, only a few feet from a heating unit, almost hidden by shrubbery.
Curious visitors, if they had been told at all about the monument, had to search to find
it. There was an odd, temporary look to the memorial's placement, although it had stood in
that spot for over forty years. Then, in 1990, for some unexplained reason, the monument
was re-located just outside Gate 8 of the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center, the least
used entrance gate to that building.
When I first saw the monument is not perfectly clear to me, but I do know that it was not
until after I had been told about the former student who died in 1898 when the USS Maine
mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor, the student whom the monument memorializes, one
John Henry Shillington. It was shortly after I assumed the duties as curator of the
International Sports and Games Research Collection that Jack Moulder, a former teacher
turned security guard and a good friend, first introduced me to the John Henry Shillington
story. Jack had a personal interest in it because he was a distant relative of Shillington
and was disturbed by the fact that the monument was not more prominently displayed and the
story behind it made more light of.
A plaque on the monument reads, "To the memory of John Henry Shillington ... who went
down in the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, Feb. 15, 1898," and no one seems to
know why the monument was moved to the off- the-beaten-path nook after its original
placement in 1915, with much fanfare, on the lawn just north of the present LaFortune
The marker, cast in metal recovered from the sunken battleship, has a 10- inch mortar
shell projecting from its five-foot base.
John Henry Shillington was a Chicago native who arrived at Notre Dame in 1892 and enrolled
sporadically as a student for the next five years. This according to records in the
university archives. He was a starter for the Notre Dame baseball team and played
shortstop for three years. His great ability
in oration was honored by a gold medal in the Junior division of Elocution in 1895.
In 1897, the year in which Shillington also captained Notre Dame's first basketball team,
misfortune struck when he traveled to Chicago for a scheduled baseball game. After the
team's victory, he met with some local friends and, engaging in some extracurricular fun,
did not make the bus trip back with his teammates. This infraction resulted in his
expulsion from the University.
Following this incident, Shillington joined the United States Navy and his assignment was
aboard the USS Maine, from where he wrote the following letter to a friend in Brownson
Hall, back on the Notre Dame campus. "I often think of Notre Dame. I can only think
of her daily and in my reminiscences of her a tear is often brushed away. I suppose
"Shilly" is forgotten by people at the old college, and I don't blame them.
Though forgotten, I shall always hold Notre Dame near and dear to me."
On Memorial Day, 1915, the granite memorial to John Henry Shillington was unveiled by His
Excellency (an archaic form of address still in use in the early 1900's) Josephus Daniels,
Secretary of the Navy. To begin the commemoration, Daniels was escorted from his hotel by
a University cadet regiment. As he was accompanied to the stage by the Reverend Fathers
Cavanaugh and Morrissey, Daniels was presented arms by a group of Navy cadets. Then, as
the band played the Star Spangled Banner,
the American flag draped over the monument was lifted to unveil the handsome granite
To a crowd of one thousand students, Daniels presented an hour-long dissertation on
patriotism. "Shillington's concept of duty to country," he stated, "was one
that all the men at school might well adopt as a pattern for study and emulation."
It is obvious that a commemoration by the Secretary of Navy is no small affair, and a
monument that he dedicates should not become so trivial that it is placed next to a
heating unit in a secluded alcove of the administration building. What is the
justification of this placement?
The answer may lie in the heavily disputed case of the explosion of the USS Maine. It has
been speculated by historians that the ship exploded from the inside out, that the Maine
was carrying wartime explosives and armaments during a non-wartime period. The USS Maine
incident could be seen as a grave embarrassment to the United States, something that the
Notre Dame adminis- tration might not like to have on display.
An alternative explanation that is more presumptuous is the fact that John Henry
Shillington was expelled from Notre Dame in 1897. Ibis fact was never expressed at the
ceremony of 1915 and was little mentioned after Shillington's death in any subsequent
writings in the archives at Notre Dame. In fact, the February 18, 1898, edition of the
SCHOLASTIC merely restated the incident of his expulsion to: "it was deemed necessary
for him to sever his relations with
the University." It may be that a memorial to such an eminent patriotic student may
become marred if an implication of University expulsion was issued (since it is not
University policy to admire a student who has been asked to leave.)
Today the memorial continues to be viewed by few admirers. Although it commemorates the
death of a Notre Dame student and symbolizes an attitude of patriotism and duty present in
the post-war Notre Dame community after the United States' struggle with Spain, perhaps
the University does not want to "Remember the Maine."
Tne USS Maine had been sent to protect U.S. citizens, supposedly endangered by the
increasing friction between the United States and Spain. Two hundred and fifty two men
were killed in the incident and many others were injured. Some U.S. newspapers seized upon
the incident and coined the popular slogan, "To hell with Spain, Remember the
Maine." in an effort to turn popular senti- ment in favor of armed intervention,
which followed in April.
In an interview in 1989, Donald Dedrick, director of Notre Dame's phys- ical plant,
referring to the monument's existence and location, said: "It's one of those
oddities. It's one of those things that was done at the time as a patriotic response. It's
not unusual at a college campus to find obscure things like that. There are few inquiries
about the monument and no plans to move it."
The following year the monument was moved to its present location out- side Gate 8 of the
Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. Regardless of where they move it, the monument
stands as a permanent reminder of the Maine and of Shillington-who, ironically, believed
he had been forgotten on campus.
An interesting post-script to this story came to me from the pen of Tony DiMarco, a
Hollywood producer and friend of mine, who for years has been extremely interested in the
possibility of a George Gipp movie. Tony wrote: "I read with interest the story of
John Henry Shillington. It seems to have many of the elements that the Gipp story
has-Notre Dame, of course, the athletics, the dismissal from School and the untimely death
of the hero. The basic story is there-Notre Dame athletic hero,
a little bit of a maverick (shades of Gipp), the ultimate seemingly unjust dismissal from
school and the Maine. I think it's in the middle where the story needs help and I think
it's here where the writer must inject some of his imagination and, as you sug- gested,
add a romance and some other dramatic situations. The basic story, I think, should be an
in-depth story of Shillington, a carefree young man who attended college near the turn of
the century and whose destiny was to be aboard the Maine on that fateful day."
To read previous installments of Herb's
archive please click below: