The Last of the Bachelor Dons

Philip Hicks '80 | March 12, 2019 

At age 83, Paul Fenlon had lived in Sorin Hall for over 60 years, but in February 1980 his failing health had prolonged his Christmas holiday with his family in Pennsylvania. He complained to me on the phone about his increasing frailty, sounding resigned never to return to campus.

Fenlon was the last living link to the great tradition of Notre Dame bachelor dons. A colorful array of scholars, eccentrics and dandies, the dons were unmarried faculty members who lived in the residence halls. Many were popular with students, counseling and befriending them. Their heyday was the 1920s, when a quarter of Notre Dame’s lay faculty lived in dorms.

A generation later, their numbers plummeted when a decision was made to move everyone off campus with the exception of four stalwarts — Jim Withey ’26, Joe Ryan ’24, ’41M.A., Frank O’Malley ’32, ’33M.A. and Paul Fenlon. By 1974, with Ryan moving off campus and Withey and O’Malley both dead, Fenlon was the last of the dons.

A native of Blairsville, Pennsylvania, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, Fenlon enrolled at Notre Dame in 1915. After his graduation in 1919 and an unhappy stint as a banker in Chicago, he returned to campus in 1920 to teach and live in Sorin. His dramatic readings in courses on the short story and the Victorian novel made him a popular English professor, and, after 42 years in the classroom, he worked for a time in the alumni office.

As a freshman in 1976, I met the man we called “the Professor” when he was scouting the first floor for someone to wind his watches. He was a tall, slender figure with wire-rimmed glasses and thinning white hair brushed straight back. His lanky frame, long face and especially his voice, with its hint of a drawl and slight singsong, reminded me of Jimmy Stewart, the movie star who grew up near Blairsville.

Fenlon invited me to drop by for a chat. He lived in Room 141, the turret nearest Sacred Heart Church. On my first visit to his room, it was just as I had imagined — a time capsule from the 1920s stuffed with musty furniture, littered with bric-a-brac and photographs and books in green and brown hardcovers with slips of paper and letters secreted between their pages.

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 by Daily Domer Staff

Posted In: ND Magazine