An Ordinary Joe’s Christmas
December 21, 2021
This article ran in the WSJ yesterday. I’m not sure what drew me to the article, but I’m glad I read it. Joe’s love of Notre Dame reminds me of the love many of us have for UVa. That he formed life long friends at ND also reminds me of the friendships we share.
This article reminded me of how we are all icebergs and that to truly know each other, we need to explore what’s below the surface. We make assumptions based on what we see, and many times our assumptions are wrong. As a friend once told me, we need to check our assumptions about others. If we do that, we can begin to understand the whole person, not just the part above the water.
This story has no jingle bells, no red-nosed reindeer, no chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But it’s a Christmas tale all the same. It’s about a guy from Chicago, the better angels he brought out in others even at his most troubled self, and peace on earth to men of good will.
His name was Joe Slovinec. As an undergrad at Notre Dame in the late 1970s, Joe was consumed by Democratic politics—and he would later make unsuccessful runs from Chicago for Congress and from Washington for the Distict of Columbia Council. Joe’s closest buddies were his fellow denizens of Dillon Hall, home to previous luminaries from Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung, class of ’57, to former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, class of ’64.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that a Chicago boy would love Notre Dame from the moment he set eyes on it. Certainly nothing in his later life equaled the joy he knew there. In those days Joe was a little odd, but there were no obvious signs then of the mental illness that would later turn him harsh and even angry toward those who tried most to help him.
After graduation, I would hear of Joe sightings. I have a vague memory of walking him to a Greyhound station in Boston. He was taking a night bus as a way of avoiding having to pay for a hotel room.
Later I would discover an unlikely connection, stemming from a lawsuit Joe had filed after completing a short course at Georgetown. He’d been trying to parlay that course into a university job or financial aid to take more courses. After he got himself banned from campus for badgering anyone he thought could give him what he wanted, he sued.
Who sat on the appellate panel that upheld the tossing of Joe’s suit? A pal from my White House days: Judge Brett Kavanaugh. In a 2018 Facebook posting, Joe vowed to “continue to complain how Brett Kavanaugh made an anti-free speech ruling in my Slovinec vs. Georgetown court case.” I haven’t had the opportunity to review the particulars with now-Justice Kavanaugh, but I feel safe in assuming the panel had the better of the First Amendment.
Joe died at a homeless mission on Chicago’s South Side on Jan. 22, 2020. For months none of his friends knew. After Joe missed that year’s (virtual) 40th class reunion, class secretary Mary Ellen Woods and others launched an effort to track him down.
Eventually they learned what had happened and that his cremated remains had been lying unclaimed in the Cook County morgue for nearly a year. Leo Latz, another classmate, was given permission by a cousin—Joe had no immediate family—to collect the remains.
Leo would later bring the remains to campus, in preparation for burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery—smack dab on Notre Dame Avenue. Joe’s classmates had chipped in for a headstone and a coveted plot not far, as it turned out, from legendary head coach Ara Parseghian.
On a beautiful fall football weekend in October, Joe’s friends wrapped him in their love one last time and gave him their Christmas gift a little early: laying him to rest in the ground where he’d always felt most at home.
Throughout the process many shared Joe stories—cheery stories, teary stories, and, occasionally, awesome stories. Among the awesome was one involving the annual and elegant Knute Rockne dinner for ND alumni at Chicago’s Conrad Hilton Hotel. Joe was over the moon when someone gave him a ticket and he showed up in a suit he’d probably bought that afternoon for the occasion. Evidently it looked it.
Most who saw Joe come in would have seen a hot mess—wild hair, unhemmed trousers, size tag still sewn on the sleeve. Maureen Kohler, wife of another of Joe’s Dillon dormmates, saw a man in need of some love and care. She commandeered her husband’s comb and pocketknife (complete with tiny scissors) and went to work. When this good woman was done, a more presentable Joe rejoined his fellow Fighting Irish for what may well have been among the happiest evenings of his adult life.
Some might ask whether all this effort for a burial is a meaningless gesture, given that it made no difference in Joe’s life. His friends would disagree. They know full well what his life was like and how he died. They just don’t believe death has the last word on Joe.
Hope tells them that whatever he suffered in life,
Joseph G. Slovinec Jr. is now in a place where he knows, as never before, how very much he was—and is—loved. So from earth to heaven a merry Christmas to you, Joe, and to the magnificent men and women whose kindnesses to you offer a weary world a glimmer of the promise of that infant in the manger: that the least among us will yet be exalted.