Paul Kollman, CSC | October 11, 2017
The August 24th death at age 81 of Father Don McNeill, CSC, ’58, founding director of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, closed a life that for a half-century showered great gifts on Notre Dame and far beyond. His wake at Moreau Seminary and funeral Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart gathered hundreds to celebrate Padre Don’s rich legacy and inspiration.
The priest’s father and namesake hosted the longest-running single-hosted show in network history, Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, so his son arrived at Notre Dame a household name. On campus, Don played basketball and was elected class president, and after a stint in the Army he joined the Congregation of Holy Cross. Education in Rome and then Princeton followed, interspersed by seminars with such luminaries as Father Henri Nouwen and Viktor Frankl.
The priest returned to campus in 1971, teaching theology and working closely with students involved in the Community for the International Lay Apostolate (CILA). Guided by their energy, he helped found the Center for Experiential Learning, sensing the need to make justice something Notre Dame students learned through practice.
When the small WNDU television station building — later the campus radio station — became available, Don helped bring together CILA, his experiential learning center and the Office of Volunteer Services to house in the empty space the Center for Social Concerns (CSC), which opened in 1983. Called to act by students seeking a visible commitment to education for justice, Father Ted Hesburgh embraced the new role for the coveted site.
And the rest is history. Notre Dame, led by innovators like Father Don, has through the center pioneered advances in service-learning (later called community-based learning, now usually labeled engaged learning and joined with research), guided by the Catholic social tradition. The Center for Social Concerns, Father Don’s most visible legacy, is now housed in Geddes Hall, which stands on the original site. It comprises around 40 staff and faculty who annually engage several thousand students, communities near and far, and many faculty in learning and research in pursuit of the common good.