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Martin Naughton and Don Keough, co-founders of the Keough-Naughton Institute of Irish Studies at Notre Dame

Best of IrishCentral: Don Keough: Putting the Irish into Notre Dame

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Martin Naughton and Don Keough, co-founders of the Keough-Naughton Institute of Irish Studies at Notre Dame

South Bend, Indiana -- Notre Dame is about much more than a football team. That can be hard to understand on a glorious fall weekend when this beautiful campus is garbed in autumn shades, and tens of thousands of fans as well as national television are on hand for the annual smackdown with USC.

Yet another big story of this past fabled weekend was almost buried. That was the re-election of Father John Jenkins as president of the college for another five years after a unanimous vote of the trustees.

Jenkins took incoming fire when he elected to invite President Obama to give the commencement speech to the graduating class this year. It was a courageous decision, but strongly opposed by many alumni.

Jenkins stuck to his guns, however, and was rewarded with overwhelming student support and now by the board. By showing his faith in tolerance and respect in the best Catholic tradition, Jenkins proved himself a true leader.

In that respect he became the first Notre Dame leader to move out of the giant shadow cast by Father Ted Hesburgh, an extraordinary leader in civil rights and education who is still hale and hearty and living on campus.

There was much more to this wonderful weekend than that even. Ryan Hall, a wonderful new residence building for female students was officially dedicated and opened.

On hand were the extended Ryan family headed by Pat Ryan and his wife Shirley from Chicago. Pat recently headed up Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, a bid that was never allowed to get off the ground because of internal International Olympic Committee politics.

It is doubtful that Pat would have got as much satisfaction if Chicago had succeeded as he did from Friday night’s events dedicating the Ryan Hall.

Over 60 of his family from all over were on hand, and it was a joyous occasion. Their son, Corbett, who has physical challenges, gave a wonderful speech about what the new residence meant to him and his family.

Family is a word you hear a lot of at Notre Dame, but unlike elsewhere it is not an empty term full of political significance for one side or the other.

Notre Dame simply does family better than any college anywhere. Partly it is the location, a Shangri la campus tucked away in the Indiana countryside far from major centers of habitation.

The geographic isolation allows for a spirit of community and cooperation that would be simply impossible to replicate anywhere else.

Until you experience it is hard to comprehend, but it explains why there are millions of Notre Dame subway alumni, people touched by the spirit of this special place.

I have seen it at first hand. I am fortunate to serve on the Keough-Naughton Irish Institute board, which has been one of the major success stories for the college in recent years.

The institute was the brainchild of Don Keough, former president of Coca-Cola and the leading Irish American of his era.

He was joined in his vision by Martin Naughton, the Irish-based businessman who has helped form the greatest Irish studies institute in the U.S.

Amazingly, before Keough there was no direct connection with Ireland for Notre Dame, one of the greatest Irish brands in the world.

He has changed all that with a vengeance. Now close to 100 Notre Dame students study in Ireland every year. And the Irish language, Irish literature and contemporary Ireland and Irish America are now core subjects on the curriculum at the institute back home.

The football team is even getting into the act.  On September 1, 2012, they will be back in Dublin playing Navy at famed Croke Park. A massive exodus of Irish fans is expected for the occasion.

Waking up the echoes in the old ancestral land will be just another accomplishment that Don Keough and Martin Naughton helped bring about.

They have transformed the relationship between Notre Dame and Ireland, and they deserve all our gratitude for doing so.

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