A letter to Father John

President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., greets Natalie Davis Miller, managing editor of NDWorks, at the 2023 President’s Christmas Reception.

Dear Father John:
Some months ago at a division meeting, I had the occasion to speak briefly with you, mentioning an upcoming print issue of NDWorks. At the time, the content was under wraps as we were still in the developmental stages of it. You asked what the issue would cover. I said (and I still can’t believe I said this), “I don’t know if I should tell you. Can you keep a secret?”

Your simple response was, “Oh, I think I can keep a secret.”

2 Chronicles 1:10 NIV

I smile when I think back at that moment, talking to the president of a university, more concerned about protocol than to whom I was speaking.

As crazy as I must have sounded then, I realized one thing. I’ve always felt like I could talk to you. Many university presidents are largely inaccessible. But we are fortunate at Notre Dame. You are approachable, you are present, you listen, and it’s clear that you care about what we have to say.

I have always felt heard.

I am familiar with you the way I imagine so many other people are: from events on campus — Masses, dedications, blessings. I witnessed you climbing into the driver’s seat of a truck to dump the last load of coal on campus. That look of determination on your face was priceless.

Not so long ago, our paths crossed as we were walking to our respective offices. You took the time to say good morning, and again, to have a very quick chat. I know I’m not alone in these brief encounters. So, whenever I have occasion to run into you on campus, I know that you will stop and talk for a minute. (And you can bet I’ll stop you if I see you first.)

I attended the dedication of the new Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where you blessed it. This happened, no less, during a time when states have been crafting anti-DEI laws and colleges and universities are dismantling DEI offices. You didn’t shy away from what others may see as controversial. Instead, you leaned into it — embraced it, even. I am so proud of that.

Father John, you are quietly, graciously, yet actively ushering in more good in this world through what we do on our campus.

People line up for photos, to introduce themselves, to shake your hand, to have a light conversation. I’m sure in those brief moments they feel like I do — seen and heard. It is this sincerity that makes these small contacts so relational. You exude both confidence and comfort, day in and day out, making you a great leader, a person people want to meet, a person we can trust, support and follow.

Here’s the thing (another little secret): When I moved to this area 20 years ago I did not like Notre Dame. Run-ins with overzealous ND supporters and fans set me on that path. And that first Michiana winter didn’t help. And then, on Aug. 26, 2019, that all changed. I became a Notre Dame employee.

Five years later, all I can say is that working at Notre Dame has been nothing but a joy for me. ND has always been synonymous with excellence. I see that every day in the people I work with in my department. I also see how we care for each other, through life, on a daily basis. And that drive for excellence and compassion starts at the top. You have made it not just about what we do, but how we do it.

My most meaningful experience with you was when I had the opportunity to have my first real conversation with you at the end of a staff town hall. All the speakers stayed after to meet with anyone who wanted to talk. That included me.

All of these moments happened because in some small way you showed that you cared — about our Earth, about what’s right, about our workforce and about the individual.

Father John, thank you for taking the time to talk to me when you didn’t have to. I appreciate it, as I am sure so many others do. Not only have you led with wisdom and knowledge, but you have led with a deep sense of caring. And for that, I thank you.

As you go about your next chapter, please remember that I, along with many others, will be praying for you.