A True Notre Dame Man, Joe Hickey Made His Place ‘Home Away From Home’ For Irish

A good many folks – including 15 or so former Notre Dame football players – paid their respects last weekend to Joseph E. Hickey, great Notre Dame man (Class of 1950) and citizen of South Bend, who died Feb. 3 at age 86.

Joe Hickey, Notre Dame Class of 1950, died Feb. 3.

Joe Hickey, Notre Dame Class of 1950, died Feb. 3.

There were heartfelt tributes from near and far, with sentiments like this: “The whole town will miss this guy. He was a great friend to all and a total Notre Dame man. Your family has a wonderful legacy to live with because of Joe.”

Some of the tributes came from people named Nick Eddy, Thom Gatewood, and yes, Ara Parshegian.

For, you see, Joe Hickey and his family played a special role for the ND football teams back in Ara’s day. Joe and his wife Mary and their seven children opened their home to countless Fighting Irish who were far away from their own homes and families.

And the student-athletes never forgot it. A few days before his death, Joe Hickey got a visit from a special guest, one of those he befriended years ago, Joe Theismann.

Here’s how Theismann recalled the Hickeys in his autobiography:

Notre Dame also gave me Joe and Mary Hickey, who kind of adopted me, a kid away from home, as their own. I met them at a barbecue for the freshman football players, and they made their home my home. Anytime I wanted a place to go, they were there. Now we’re talking a good Catholic family with a lot of kids. It was great. Joe would be walking around in his boxer shorts and he might have a Scotch and soda in his hand. He’d prop his feet up on the ottoman and wouldn’t know who the hell was in his house. He had some of his and some of somebody else’s. For me, the Golden Dome was special, and so were Joe and Mary Hickey.

Homesickness — it’s a storyline that’s been repeated down through the generations. At a place like Notre Dame, which draws students from coast to coast, the comfort and familiarity of home is quite often much more than a couple of hours away. And the challenges of keeping up in a place of ultra-accomplishment can be overwhelming at times.

It was true in the day of Knute Rockne. As we write in Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, during his freshman year in 1910-11, Knute

“found himself fighting a bout of self-pity. Fed up with his on-campus job of cleaning up ‘slop in the chemical lab’ and wracked with homesickness, a tearful Rockne packed his suitcase and headed to the train station. But (John) Devine, (John) Plant, and Fred Steers, another track star, received word of his exit and intercepted him. They had to deliver their sales pitch once again, assuring Rockne he could stick it out and look forward to better days ahead.”

From that day forward, Rockne was conscious of the homesickness that so easily preyed upon especially Notre Dame freshmen far away from home for the first time. He turned around several himself, and in later years, it would take a friendly face or two on the team and some comforting words to keep future stars like Elmer Layden from sneaking out of South Bend on the next train.

In 1973, the Fighting Irish defeated Alabama, 24-23, in the Sugar Bowl to secure the national championship. On Bob Thomas’ winning field goal, the holder was backup quarterback Brian Doherty from Portland, Oregon. Here’s how Brian recalls the Hickey hospitality:

“Joe’s passing marks the end of another great era in Notre Dame history. The loyalty and kindness Joe and Mary showed to so many of us “homeless” students while we were in South Bend was boundless. Do I want to sit in my dorm and eat dining hall food or go to the “Hickey pool party/barbecue extravaganza?” They sure made a lonely boy from Oregon feel a lot closer to home. You just were family from the moment you met them. God bless Joe, Mary and all the wonderful Hickey clan.”

It’s the end of an era in part because Joe was the last surviving son of Tom and Kate Hickey. They had a huge role in making South Bend and Notre Dame what it is today – literally. Tom Hickey’s construction company built a good deal of the Notre Dame and St. Mary’s campuses.

But more than that, the Hickeys were active in community events and modeled family life for their next-door neighbors, the Rocknes. Tom and Kate Hickey sponsored Rockne when the coach converted to Catholicism in 1925. On several occasions, Coach Rockne would take a break from the pressure of leading Notre Dame, to toss a football around the Hickey backyard with Joe’s older brothers, or wrestle with them in the family’s living room.

That easy interaction continued into the next generation, when Joe and Mary Hickey would host a constant flow of Notre Dame football players in their home on the southern reaches of South Bend. Thom Gatewood recalls going to the Hickey home for dinner, then staying to wash dishes and help the Hickey kids with their homework. Just normal family stuff, a home away from home.

Joe and Mary’s children were overwhelmed by the reaction from the former Notre Dame players and coaches upon Joe’s death.

“We were humbled and honored at the outpouring and words from such great people…they wrote awesome, beautiful emails to the family. Ara and Katie (Parseghian) also wrote a beautiful tribute.”

Rocky Bleier to Rick Slager. Joe Hickey could tell you stories about them all. Now Joe is at rest, and the memories live on. RIP, Joe Hickey.