By: Niall O’Regan, Intern, LeadershipSBM
It is a brisk and sunny morning in downtown South Bend. I am standing outside of Peggs waiting for my interviewee to arrive. A car pulls up and parks in the nearest available space. I glance over and then look again. I am almost immediately convinced that this who I am waiting for, but photos are not worth much amongst strangers in the era of Covid-19 and masks. I wait. To be fair this is the first time I have left my house outside of the office and grocery store in some time. I have not been out to eat since February. Like many others my social skills are suffering from glaring disuse. A few minutes drag on before I go over and tap on the window. As expected, its exactly who I was waiting for. Just an opening reminder of the strange times we live in.
After getting ourselves situated and distanced at a patio table I look across and am immediately struck by my interviewee’s seeming normalcy. If I did not know better, I would hardly peg him (pun intended) as a man who according to WNIT is “A Legend of Michiana” (a title we would later joke about). Indeed, at first glance Jerry Hammes seems to better fit the bill of a loving grandfather rather than a local icon, especially one whose name adorns multiple buildings and is etched into the very history of the community. That Jerry seems to take much more pride in his grandchildren’s recent triumphs than his own accomplishments only serves reinforce that impression. Of course, to those who truly know him or have, like me, spent a few hours in animated conversation with him, it is clear that Jerry is hardly constrained to any particular label.
A 3-year attendee of the University of Notre Dame and a life-long friend and confidante of the late great Father Theodore Hesburgh, Jerry Hammes was something of a regional pilgrim to the Michiana area amidst the beginnings of its post-industrial decline. A successful businessman and generous philanthropist, Hammes been called “an adopted son of South Bend”. But of course, such phrases are often tossed out at America’s wealthy with little consideration to its actual veracity. Indeed, America’s greatest philanthropists, titans of industry such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt, were never able to live down their hard-won moniker of robber baron. Jerry Hammes did not need to work off any blemish off his record. To hear him tell it even if he had been so inclined his late beloved wife Dorene would never have allowed him the opportunity.
Of course, I think it only fair to note that I am somewhat personally indebted to Jerry. An ardent and dedicated sponsor and trustee of local education (of which his work on behalf of St. Mary’s College gives him perhaps the most pride) Jerry was instrumental in the educational transformation and later the financial salvation of Holy Cross College (my alma mater). That such a place even existed has been a remarkable gift to me and many others and is due in large part to both the interest and the generosity of people such as Jerry and Dorene. Money pours into to the Notre Dame endowment with astonishing force. Tens of thousands of people in the community are either directly or indirectly employed as a result. But as Jerry recounted to me while supporting and being part of a great enterprise is fantastically fulfilling it means little if everything else is ignored. That Jerry has devoted so much of his time to helping non-profits, supporting female leaders, and empowering local institutions underscores the fact his is a journey of substance over appearance.
Indeed, if there is one thing that is truly extraordinary about Jerry Hammes, an ability we could all work to improve in, it is his untampered admiration for the extraordinary. Of course, his single greatest achievement and insight was realized in his marriage, but it goes far beyond that. Despite his constant proximity to the late Father Hesburgh, Jerry recalls their friendship as something of an act of witness, a cherished opportunity to rub shoulders, break bread, even help someone worthy great admiration. Furthermore, when asked what single act he would like to see in the local community (beyond an excellent plan for economic recovery) Jerry said that a statue in honor of recently deceased Former South Bend Mayor and Indiana Governor Joe Kernan was at the top of his list. Once a potential rival to Kernan’s first mayoral run in 1987 (a notion quickly put to rest by Dorene according to Jerry) Kernan became to Jerry not only a friend but a personification for public service, something that regardless of your political persuasion seems too often these days to be a relic of the past.
While I was certainly surprised at Jerry’s answer (I was expecting something policy-related) it rings true. We lie as a community on the brink of stagnation or revival; only by seeing in the best in each other, investing in the gifted, and constantly looking towards elevating the underprivileged can we hope to tip the scales in our favor. Therefore, while few of us will ever have the means of Jerry Hammes, we could all learn a lesson from his life and example as we strive to contribute towards the common good.