Now more than 15 years after his death, we remember an iconic figure in Notre Dame history.
Many-layered, textured, gruff, kind, stubborn, witty, hilarious. These among many other words are used when describing Conrad Vachon, the esteemed former English teacher from Notre Dame in Harper Woods. Vachon died 15 years ago this spring (May 11) at the age of 67. But his legacy and influence continue to resonate with all those Notre Dame men who were lucky enough to know him and to take a class taught by him.
For those who did not know Vachon, it’s hard to describe or define him—despite many who try. He was an enigma in every sense of the word.
Imagine a combination of Hunter S. Thompson, Lenny Bruce and Pope Francis. [Sorry, Mr. Vachon!]
Imagine Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes and Jack Kerouac wrapped into one. Maybe TV's Dr. House?
Or, how about let’s just forget about trying to describe him in simple terms because it is nigh impossible. So, after a brief biographical sketch, we’ll let those who knew Vachon best talk about him.
Conrad G. Vachon was born on November 24, 1932, in Detroit to parents Rudel and Alice. (His older brother Maurice currently lives in suburban Detroit.) Vachon attended Detroit’s St. Rita grade school and graduated in 1950 from Catholic Central, which at that time was still in Detroit. He received his undergraduate degree in English from Assumption College, in Windsor, Ontario, and his graduate degree, also in English, from the University of Detroit.
Irene Vachon, Conrad’s sister-in-law and Maurice’s wife, said she first met Conrad around the time he was in the Basilian Seminary, which she said he entered out of high school, but didn’t finish.
Irene and her family were close with Conrad throughout his life. An avowed life-long bachelor, Irene said her brother-in-law was always included in their family gatherings.
“Conrad was in many ways more like a brother to me than my own brothers,” Irene recalled. “And he was a very good uncle to my children. We would never think of having a birthday or holiday celebration without him.”
She said he was also generous to a fault to her family.
“He really loved books and the arts,” Irene said. “In fact, every year on my birthday and Christmas, Conrad would always give me a book. Same with the kids. And he would always write something on the flyleaf.” She said they still have all those books.
Conrad Vachon started teaching at Notre Dame High School in 1957 just a couple of years after it opened in Harper Woods and he was on staff there until he died in 2000. He taught English from the get-go and coached track and cross country for most of his years at the school. From 1974 until 1981, he also served as principal.
So, between those years at Notre Dame—1957 and 2000—Conrad Vachon touched the lives of many students and staffers. We reached out to some of them and what follows are their thoughts, remembrances and anecdotes. And we wrap it up with a special, touching essay written in the year 2000 by a 1965 graduate. It really does capture the special essence of a special man.
Doug Brown, a 1970 graduate of NDHS, qualified for the Olympics three times (1972, 1976, 1980) and was a two-time American record holder and five-time national college champion (Tennessee) in steeplechase. During his senior year at NDHS, he won the Michigan class A state championship in cross country. Vachon was Brown’s cross-country coach and his number-one mentor.
“Simply put, Conrad Vachon was one of the most influential people in my entire life. It’s not a cliché to say he was like a father to me. He would kick my butt when it needed kicking, hug my neck when it needed hugging, and taught me so many things that could never be learned in the classroom. He always believed in me and for that reason I was willing to run through walls for that man—pun intended!”
Fr. Leon Olszamowski, s.m., is a 1965 alum of NDHS and current head of school at Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy.
“Conrad Vachon was the quintessential English teacher. I enjoyed him immensely in class. Additionally, he was a wonderful support to me when I became principal at Harper Woods Notre Dame. God bless Conrad for the many good things he did for his students.”
Mark Binelli, who graduated from NDHS in 1988, is an author and journalist based in New York City.
“I remember how Vachon would refer to Joseph Conrad as 'Joe Conrad,' and how he told us never to leave a movie before the credits ended, and of course, the poems we'd recite at the beginning of every class. Funny enough, my girlfriend teaches high school English here in New York and I mentioned Vachon's poetry regimen—and she loved the idea and started doing it with her kids! She even used Tennyson's 'The Eagle,' the very first poem Vachon had us memorize in 12th-grade English class, which I'm sure he chose in part because he knew how much he looked like a balding bird of prey himself. So anyway, because of Vachon, now there are a bunch of tough New York City public school kids who can recite 'He clasps the crag with crooked hands. . .'"
Tom Novak, a 1958 graduate of NDHS, is a former cop, businessman and author of a number of novels. He talks about what got him interested in writing and, of course, Vachon.
“Actually, it started in grade school where I wrote essays for the ADF (Archdiocesan Development Fund) while at Ascension School in Warren. I won a rosary in the fifth grade, I think, for an essay. Then, during my senior year at NDHS, Mr. Conrad Vachon, my English teacher, wanted us to write for a Detroit Free Press or Detroit News contest. I did not win, but Mr. Vachon said, ‘You can write, Tom. Don’t waste your talent.’ Much later, I sent him a copy of an outdoor magazine published out of Cincinnati that bought two articles from me in the late 70s just to show him I was trying to follow his wishes. I also loved the way Mr. Vachon read Macbeth, changing voices for all the characters. And he was a sharp dresser. Being the class clown, I always had to make comments about his Robert Hall wardrobe.”
Gini Kelly worked as Conrad Vachon’s secretary when he was principal of NDHS. She and her husband, Tom, the former teacher, coach and athletic director at Notre Dame, were very good friends with Vachon.
“To say working for Conrad was a challenge is definitely an understatement. But he always put the kids first, always had their best interests in mind. I will always remember, though, what to me was a very funny episode near the end of one particular school year. I’m sure he’d have a different take on it, however. One afternoon, he came flying out of his office, almost screaming, ‘Gini, call the police! Those damn girls from Regina are driving around our school and mooning the boys!’ He was beside himself. He’d go back into his office and then come back out a few minutes later. ‘Gini, call the police! Did you call them yet?!’ While nearly falling out of my chair laughing, I told him ‘you call the damn police. I’m not calling them!’ What he was conveniently forgetting about was the call we got the week before from the principal of Regina complaining about the ND boys mooning the girls—and that he had told me, ‘Oh well, boys will be boys.’”
Bob Artymovich, a 1970 alum of NDHS and owner of EA Graphics, recalled an encounter with Vachon on his graduation day.
“I went up to Mr. Vachon after the ceremony and said that I'm sure happy to see this diploma because I wasn't sure I was going to make it. He said 'Until last night, you weren't.' I didn't know if he was joking or not!"
Gregory Simon, a 1989 NDHS grad, is currently director of The Notre Dame Fund.
“I found my inner scholar because of Conrad Vachon. I learned to think and critique the world around me. I learned to never hold my tongue when I saw indifference, arrogance or authority running amok. And, of course, I learned living with passion, humor, and a bit of an edge is not to be shied away from…”
Norm Kotarski taught at both NDHS and NDP for more than 30 years. He also directed the drama departments at both schools.
“Conrad Vachon = unconventional and effective.
“As a member of the English department, I observed Conrad use some classroom strategies that could only be used most effectively by Conrad. He had a way of invading the students’ minds by creating some tension without provoking animosity. His swing from formality to informality could keep a class of students on their toes.
“He prodded students to view literature on a different slant. Students created the questions and then answered them with often an intellectual reversal to the point of the story. Did this lead to argument? Of course! Only the students who took part in the discussions were the winners of the argument.
“Tensions were relieved with nicknames, trips to 'check the flag,' and crazy 'window' rules. Who else could ask a class of senior boys to memorize the first fourteen lines of Chaucer’s introduction to The Canterbury Tales in the original Old English dialect and then hear them spontaneously shout it out as part of a cheer at a sports rally. That made even Conrad smile.
“Why do the alumni remember Mr. Vachon? Because he was full of surprises and successfully rode that line between boys and men.”
David Bonior, former U.S. Congressman and author of four books, graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1963.
“Conrad Vachon was as good a teacher as I’ve ever had. I remember he made me miss a baseball game once. Kept me after school. But he did the right thing. I was mad at him, but it was the right thing to do. Also, I had a habit of silent reading with my lips. He cured me of that by sticking a pencil in my mouth!”
Fr. Joe Hindelang, s.m., who graduated from NDHS in 1968 and is the current principal of Notre Dame Prep, had a “very Vachon” story to tell. It was during the time Hindelang was on staff at Notre Dame and Vachon was teaching English.
“When I was an assistant principal at ND in the mid-to-late 80s, near the end of the year, one day I was walking innocently down the main hallway and I smelled smoke. So I was a bit concerned about that and determined that the smell was coming from the end of the middle wing.
“So I walked to the end of the wing and there was Conrad's class of seniors and they were all sitting there smoking cigars. So I figured Conrad knows what he's doing and I turned around and walked back to my office. Three or four hours later I saw Conrad in the hall and I said, 'Conrad, I was walking down the hallway at 9:05 this morning and saw a bunch of guys smoking in your room.'
"Conrad said, 'Did you see that!?' That was the damnedest thing!' And I said, what was going on, and he said, 'I was standing there teaching and all of a sudden this Barr kid lights a cigar.' And I said, what did you do? And he said, 'Nothing. I didn't want him to know it bothered me.' Then what happened? He said, 'Everybody else took out a cigar.' And I said, then what did you do? He said, 'I kept teaching. I didn't want them to think it was bothering me.’ After a long pause, he said, ‘But when it got to the end of the period, I said, put those things out and open the windows. We've got freshmen coming in here next and we don't want them scandalized.'
"Come to find out, three or four days later I was talking to Mr. and Mrs. Barr and I said something about this to them. They said the class wanted to do something special in Conrad's class since it was the end of the school year. But they all thought they would get expelled. "So our son said, 'Look, I'll light the cigar and if he is going to do anything, he’ll just throw me out, and then you guys are all set. But if I don't get into trouble, then you guys light up.’ They had this all worked out."
Comedian and actor Dave Coulier, a 1977 NDHS alum, recalled Vachon’s writing classes.
“He would give out a gold star if your paper was the best of that week’s assignment. I would usually write something funny about a serious subject matter. Well, my first four papers in his class were Ds. He told me (insert nasally Conrad Vachon impression here): ‘David, not everything in this world is funny.’ And I said, ‘Yes it is.’ He laughed, shook his head and walked away. I stuck with it though, and for the next assignment I wrote something that I thought was really funny about the Vietnam War. The following week he was giving out our papers and I thought, here comes another D. He threw my paper on my desk with a look of sheer disgust on his face. I looked down. I got the gold star! Before I read my paper to class, he told everyone what guts I had. The moral of the story for me? STICK WITH WHAT YOU BELIEVE even though there’s going to be some failure on the way to success.”
Duane Holmes taught, coached and was the dean of students at NDHS before he came to work in NDP’s athletic department in 2005. He began his Notre Dame career in 1978 when then-principal Conrad Vachon hired him to teach at the Harper Woods campus. Holmes had been at Detroit Austin High School for two years before that school closed.
“I thought Conrad was a very interesting individual, to say the least, when I first met him at my interview. But he was a wonderful, wonderful man."
Tom Schusterbauer taught English at NDHS for nine years before a 30-year stint at Mercy High School. Many former Notre Dame students to this day compare him to Vachon. Schusterbauer said that when he first got to ND, he was scared to death of Vachon.
“I told fellow English teacher Bob Kelly that I was struggling with teaching advanced comp. He suggested that I sit in on CV’s class. When I asked Vachon if he minded, he said, ‘I don’t give a damn what you do.’
“But later that same year, as I was walking to the library for the faculty Christmas party, Vachon came up to me and said, ‘I’m hearing great things about you, Schusty.’ Nothing meant more to me.”
Fr. Jim Strasz, s.m., is on staff at Notre Dame Prep. He graduated from NDHS in 1970 and was at Notre Dame for his first few years of teaching.
“I was grateful to Conrad for his kindness when I first went to teach at ND. He was the principal then and was always very enthused about the school. And he was most helpful in my first year or two giving advice on teaching. I especially remember after Vachon gave up the principal’s job and was back in the classroom. Across the hall from me in the second wing I could hear him boom to his students,"Don't you dare look out that window!” It brought back memories of when I was at NDHS and had him as a teacher. He often would bellow to unsuspecting kids, usually freshmen, "Go out to the football field and see if the flag is flying!”
Bob Gassen is a 1965 alum of Notre Dame as well as a writer and college professor. He wrote the following after a visit to Notre Dame to hopefully catch up with his favorite high school teacher.
Originally published in the Language Arts Journal of Michigan –
Volume 17, Issue 1: What's Cool in Your School
Article 8 (1-1-2001)
By Bob Gassen
“On May 17, 2000, I entered the back door of Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods, Michigan, holding a paperback copy of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Although this book was faded and worn, held together with yellowed mending tape, it was in remarkably good condition, considering the service it had given to me. I had first used this book in 1965 as a senior at Notre Dame. Three years later, as an English major, I made use of the critical commentary at the back of the book while I studied Shakespearean tragedies. Then in 1976, I again used the reference works when studying Shakespeare as a graduate student in English. On numerous occasions, I have used this old Signet Classic Hamlet when teaching Introduction to Literature at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. After teaching English for thirty years. I decided to give this book to Mr. Conrad Vachon, my senior English teacher at Notre Dame. This book, along with a number of others that I had saved from high school, undergraduate work and graduate study, meant much to me. To some extent, it was symbolic of my scholastic attainments, and I wanted to give this worn copy of Hamlet, one of the crowning achievements in the English language, to the man who had introduced me to the power of language.
“At the end of my junior year in high school, the dean of studies at Notre Dame asked me about my career plans. Although I had no career plans, I told him that I wanted to become a writer. English was one of the only courses in which I had earned a B grade. I enjoyed writing and put occasional effort into it. On the strength of my remark to the dean and my Bs in English, I ended up in one of Mr. Vachon's senior English classes with the smart kids, those who enrolled in fourth-year Latin and calculus and were prepping for colleges such as Brown, Boston College and Michigan. My only impression of Mr. Vachon prior to my senior year was of a skinny guy with a hooked nose and an almost continual scowl, a no-nonsense teacher who walked quickly through the halls. He reminded me of a rooster wearing black, horn-rimmed glasses.
“Conrad Vachon praised me once during my entire senior year of English. Before starting class one morning, he saw Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast on my desk. 'You're reading A Moveable Feast. I'm impressed, Gassen.' That was the only time he was impressed with me. What I didn't mention to Mr. Vachon was that, the day before, I was killing time in study hall, which was located in the library. While doodling in my notebook, I noticed a book with a multicolored dust jacket on one of the shelves and began reading it out of curiosity. Just before the end of the hour, I checked out A Moveable Feast and read it all. Hemingway made writing seem like such an adventure that I even wrote some of my essays for Mr. Vachon in a drugstore restaurant to imitate Hemingway's account of writing in restaurants. I didn't know who Hemingway was and had no recollection of reading any of his fiction, but at that time, I was only beginning to really care about anything.
“If a young person is lucky, he becomes involved with the right adult at the right time. In my case, I was doubly lucky. As a cross country coach, Mr. Bill Raymond made me believe that mediocrity was my lot in life only if I allowed that to happen. From him, I learned that if I wanted to excel as a runner, I would have to have the determination to win and put in the requisite hard work. As an English teacher, Mr. Vachon demonstrated what commitment and passion for a profession and a field of study really meant. In Mr. Vachon's classes, we didn't take study halls or discuss any issues not pertinent to the lesson at hand. Under him, we studied the craft of writing—such as formulating a thesis and improving verb density. We read and discussed such works as Sophocles' Antigone, Beowulf, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native. We memorized John Donne's sonnet 'Death, be not proud,' Shakespeare’s sonnet “That time of Year,” and Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy. I still remember sitting at an old Formica kitchen table writing Donne's 'Death, be not proud' sonnet over and over until I had, to use Mr. Vachon's phrase, 'committed it to memory.' At that time, I had no idea what this poem meant. It could just as well have been written in a foreign language. But what was important then was that I was beginning my apprenticeship in the profession of language. Several years later, I came to appreciate Donne's ingenious Italian sonnet, and a few years after that, I took an entire graduate course entitled Age of Donne. But I had memorized 'Death, be not proud' in 1965, and to this day, I can recite it and the other poems that I memorized in Mr. Vachon's class.
“I’m not suggesting that requiring students to memorize a number of poems and read a voluminous amount of literature is a necessary characteristic of good English teaching. However, Conrad Vachon brought such intense passion and conviction to his teaching that I really didn't mind the work. In fact, years later, when preparing certain works of literature that I previously studied under Mr. Vachon for college classes that I was taking, I would hear his phrases and ideas echoing in my mind. When discussing Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim in a college class, I remembered Conrad Vachon lecturing in the cafeteria while team teaching with Mr. Robert Kelly and Father Richard Cochran. His emphasis that Jim was 'one of us' still reverberates in my memory. By the end of my senior year at Notre Dame, I knew that although I had a long way to go, I wanted to teach English like Mr. Vachon.
“During the first semester of my freshmen year at college, my mother sent me an article about Mr. Vachon as the new coach of the Notre Dame cross country team. I knew that Coach Raymond had taken a sabbatical to study at Arizona State University and was wondering who would coach cross country. When I read the article, I scoffed at the idea of Conrad Vachon being a coach. I should have known that he would put forth the same passion and commitment to coaching that he put into teaching English. As a student at Notre Dame, I dedicated myself to running. Coincidentally, when I went to college, I channeled that dedication into the study of English, and Conrad Vachon dedicated much of his energy into coaching cross country and track, eventually producing championship teams and nationally renowned runners. Perhaps it is just as well that Mr. Vachon began coaching the year after I left Notre Dame. I don't think that I could have dealt with such intensity both in the classroom and on the track.
“As I passed through the gym and began walking down the main hallway, I looked into the room where I had Mr. Vachon for senior English. Farther on, I approached a faculty member walking in the opposite direction. 'Excuse me, I'm looking for Mr. Vachon.' He gave me a solemn look before telling me that Mr. Vachon had recently passed away.
“Before leaving, I spoke briefly with the principal, Father John Sajdak, about Mr. Vachon. As I walked out the back door, still holding the book I had intended to give Mr. Vachon, I remembered Horatio's famous line to the dead Hamlet: 'Good night, sweet prince, I and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’”
Bob Gassen ’65 (NDHS), free-lance writer and frequent contributor of articles to professional journals, teaches composition and literature at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas.
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