Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University. As a 2015 Research Travel Grant recipient, he traveled to Notre Dame to conduct research on Francis Wallace, a prominent sportswriter in the first half of the 20th century. Ream wrote a story about Wallace that appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Notre Dame Magazine, and that story helped him recognize the significance of Wallace’s life and contributions. He’s now preparing a book proposal about Wallace’s life. Cushwa’s Heather Grennan Gary caught up with him after his research trip.
Who was Francis Wallace? How did you discover him? Why does he deserve to be better known—and why do you think he isn’t better known today?
I first encountered Wallace’s name about a year and a half ago when I was at Notre Dame’s library. For some time I’ve planned to write a biography of Father Theodore Hesburgh, so I was pulling books related to Hesburgh and the history of the university. I came across Notre Dame: Its People and Its Legends (David McKay, 1969) by Francis Wallace—in particular, I noticed that he had dedicated that book to Father Hesburgh.
Since I didn’t know anything about Wallace, I did a Google search on him. I found very little—not even a Wikipedia entry (which I have since rectified—and I hope it is the only Wikipedia entry I ever write!). I followed up with the library catalog, where I found a number of books and articles by Wallace—he wrote 17 books and was involved in the production of eight motion pictures. These materials helped me piece together an initial framework of his life, including details concerning his time as a student at Notre Dame and the fact that his son, John, also graduated from Notre Dame. Francis Wallace himself died in 1977 at the age of 83.
Finally, I visited the alumni office, where I explained who I was, what I was doing, and asked whether they had any contact information for a John Wallace. They eventually connected me with John, who has been very generous with his time and his memories of his father.
While I still plan to write that biography of Father Hesburgh, I knew that Francis Wallace’s story was also one that needed to be told. Beyond the sheer volume of material that he generated over the course of his life, Wallace is important because he had a front row seat—literally and metaphorically—to an era in which college football exploded in popularity. He reported the details he witnessed and reflected deeply on the challenges and opportunities facing the game. Those reflections, while historically significant in their own right, also speak to the challenges and opportunities facing the game today. Our current conversations concerning football would be greatly enhanced if we could draw from the insights of individuals such as Wallace.
I’m not sure why Wallace isn’t better known today. My best speculation is that it has something to do with the nature of sports writing. Once the details of a particular game are in the books, the public’s attention is off to the next game. Sportswriters thus often feed that appetite for what’s happening next. As a result, little space is left to consider the lessons of the past and deeper ideas about the value of sports. Figures such as Wallace face the risk of being swept under waves of reports concerning immediate details. All said, this question is one I am eager to explore further, as I fear Wallace’s legacy is not the only one we are at risk of losing.
Your scholarship suggests that the liberal arts informed Wallace’s take on college sports—and that the history of sport, history of media, and history of religion can all be connected, at least in this case. How so?
I do indeed think you can draw a straight line between Wallace’s liberal arts education and the questions he asked concerning collegiate football. He knew his Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas well, was nurtured in his Catholic faith, and was thus habitually inclined to ask questions concerning the larger point of a particular effort or event. Such an inclination is even woven into the fabric of some of the shorter pieces he wrote where he is recounting the details of a particular game. However, that inclination is given more space in longer op-ed pieces and in several of his books—Dementia Pigskin (Rinehart and Company, 1951), for instance.
Part of the challenge of writing about sports today is that there are few scholars who focus on the subject as a whole. I think Murray Sperber is the scholar who has looked most carefully at athletics and, in places, the communication surrounding athletics. Sperber mentions Wallace at considerable length in Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football (Henry Holt and Company, 1993) and Onward to Victory: The Crises that Shaped College Sports (Henry Holt and Company, 1998). Via e-mail, Sperber was also quite helpful in terms of my assessment of Wallace’s legacy.
Tell us about Wallace’s opinions of/influence over the “Fighting Irish” nickname. Did Notre Dame have an official nickname before “Fighting Irish”?
So far I have depended rather heavily on Sperber in terms of this part of Wallace’s legacy. In particular, in Shake Down the Thunder, Sperber notes that Wallace objected when his fellow sportswriters in the Northeast would refer to Notre Dame’s football team as the “Rambling Irish,” “Rockne’s Rovers,” the “Wandering Irish” or “Rockne’s Ramblers.” Wallace, writes Sperber, found these names “pejorative, implying that the Catholic school was a ‘football factory’ and that its players were always on the road, never in class.”
Because branding and trademarks are so important in college athletics today, it’s hard to understand that teams often acquired nicknames based more on cultural consensus than an administrative decision. However, that was more the case than not in the early years of college athletics.
Wallace’s initial response was to try to “create an acceptable alternative — nonethnic and nonnomadic — and [he] came up with the ‘Blue Comets,’.” Like most artificially imposed nicknames, Sperber notes, Wallace’s efforts failed. In 1925, while working at the New York Post, Wallace apparently accepted defeat and began to consistently refer to the sons of his alma mater as the “Fighting Irish.”
When Wallace moved to The New York Daily News in 1927, he continued the practice and compelled the wire services to begin doing the same. Later that year, writes Sperber, when asked by Herbert Bayard Swope of The New York World about Notre Dame’s official position on the rising popularity of its nickname, Father Matthew J. Walsh, C.S.C., then the University’s president, “decided to put the school’s imprimatur on ʻFighting Irish.ʼ”
The time Wallace spent as a student at Notre Dame shaped the course of his life in a number of ways. Was any faculty member particularly influential in his formation?
Wallace was indebted to his professors for his liberal arts education. However, the person to whom he was most indebted, and whom he viewed as a mentor, was Knute Rockne. Wallace worked for Rockne as a press intern. As Wallace told the story, he came one day to the university president, Rev. James A. Burns, C.S.C., because he was having trouble paying his tuition. That same day, Rockne came to plead a case for his star player, George Gipp, who, Wallace later wrote, “had bet he could absent himself from more than the permissible number of classes in the law school. He had lost, [and had] been declared ineligible for athletics.”
Father Burns met both Wallace’s and Rockne’s pleas. Gipp would be reinstated if he could pass “an oral examination now without a chance for cramming—and let his performance decide.” Unsurprisingly, Gipp performed well. Then, according to Wallace, Burns “practically created a job that was to put me in the newspaper business.” Within three months, he says, “I would be writing the story of George Gipp’s funeral; and within six months would be working for Rockne.” His career as Rockne’s press intern and as a writer was launched.
What have been some of the most interesting things you’ve found in the University Archives’ Francis Wallace Collection?
To Wallace’s credit—and to my pleasure—it appears he kept much of what he generated. As a result, his publications and letters are part of the collection, as are many of the notes he generated when preparing those items.
To date, the most interesting materials I have found have been letters between Francis Wallace and Walter Byers, who was the first executive director of the NCAA and served from 1951 to1988. In particular, Byers and Wallace had divergent views on what constituted amateur status and what kind of support, or even compensation, student-athletes should receive. Given the sacrifices student-athletes were asked to make, Wallace was much more in favor of providing them with support, or what is being discussed today as a stipend.
This collection is currently being processed, and unfortunately some of the material is in fragile condition due to moisture damage. However, Charles Lamb, in particular, has done a great job of making these materials accessible while also trying to judiciously catalog and preserve them.