Feb 2021 - Dan Chesire ’69: From Boys Town to Notre Dame and Back
This first appeared as an interview with John Hickey ’69 on the Notre Dame Class of 1969 Blog
I was the youngest of seven children—six boys and a girl—of Robert and Mary (Healy) Chesire. My father was a lawyer and worked for the Federal Land Bank in Omaha and later the National Indemnity Company. Mom became ill with breast cancer and was in and out of the hospital with surgeries and cobalt treatments. It was a brutal treatment at that time, and she died on August 7, 1954, at the age of 44. I was seven at the time.
My dad fell apart and didn’t go to work, and we were not going to school. My father became an alcoholic at this time. My oldest brother, Barry, got my brothers Chuck, Tom, and John into Boys Town, but they would not take Jim and me because we were too young. He and I ended up on a farm where the couple’s older boys beat us frequently. My sister, Mary Ann, continued to live with Dad. Boys Town accepted Jim and me, and we arrived at the school on June 21, 1955. I was ecstatic and grateful to be with my brothers again—Tom (class of ’60), John (class of ’62), and Jim (class of ’63) at Boys Town.
The Home separated us by age group in the dorms, and Jim and I were assigned to one building with one-hundred boys. There were four apartments in the building with twenty-five beds in each one. Although we did not live in the same building as our brothers, we had daily contact with them. There was very little hazing, and we all got along. If a new kid came in and thought he was tough, we taught him a lesson, and he got in line after that.
Life was regimented and strict, much like the military. We ate all our meals in a dining hall, attended Mass on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, and benediction on Tuesday and Sunday afternoons. Most of the kids who were not Catholic converted—they wanted to be with their friends. The daily rosary at 5:00 p.m. was optional, and I often attended. I became an altar boy, as did three of my brothers. Dowd Chapel became my refuge and a place to strengthen my faith.
Our accommodations in high school were much nicer than the dorms. Each cottage had four to each room with two sinks. There were twenty kids per cottage.
Most of the kids were not from Omaha and had nowhere to go for the holidays. For Christmas, everyone got presents, and we celebrated the twelve days of Christmas. The Home did an excellent job for the kids during the holiday. My Dad had an older sister and a younger sister. The sisters moved back to Omaha from Chicago to live. My brothers and I would have Christmas with them.
Boys Town had a camp at Lake Okoboji in northwestern Iowa, 190 miles northeast of Omaha. Every kid went there for at least a week each summer. You looked forward to that experience each year when you got to go swimming, water skiing, and fishing.
I always had friends to play sports. The grade school had its own gym and pool, as did the high school. The way to get off campus was through sports. I started to do competitive swimming, which allowed us to go on bus trips, which we loved to do. The school was very competitive athletically. Some of the kids did not have birth certificates, and in eighth grade, some of them were shaving. That could be intimidating for the guys on opposing teams—especially basketball.
I was blessed with the most speed of my brothers and picked up the running habit. The campus was one square mile, and I often ran in the steam tunnels to lose weight for the midget football program. During my junior and senior years, I was on the varsity track team and set some school records. My love of running and sports carried into my adult years.
We could play youth football once you hit sixth grade. Our squad played local teams every Sunday. The Home lost only one game in my four years in high school—no one in Omaha wanted to play us. I played halfback on the varsity team in 1963 and 1964. At the end of the season, we played the Catholic League champions in Pittsburgh, Penn., in mid-November. The first game in that series began in 1941. The second game took place after WWII in 1948 and continued uninterrupted after WWII in 1948.
In 1964, we flew from Omaha by jet to Pittsburgh and played North Catholic on November 14 in front of 4,500 fans at South High Catholic Stadium. When lined up at the line of scrimmage, the North Catholic players were using foul language and calling some of our classmates inappropriate racial language. Their players would call some of our black kids every name you could imagine. We had never heard trash talking like that. In the piles, they would punch you in the ribs. That was OK because we beat them 14–7 to finish the season with an 8–1–1 record.
I was active in student government and served as a class officer all four years of high school. I was also a councilman in the Home’s self-government program, and a cottage commissioner my senior year. As an altar boy, I was in the Knights of the Altar for four years.
My Dad would go on and off the wagon over the years, and my brothers remained angry at him. He could be charming, and I accepted him for what he was. The boys had Sunday passes, which were privileges to leave campus one Sunday per month after morning Mass until 7 p.m. There were not a lot of places open on the Lord’s Day in Omaha. Dad always took me for breakfast at Union Station. He was then working as a lawyer for National Indemnity Insurance—later one of Warren Buffet’s company. They insured high-risk cases, and he would tell me stories of some cases he was handling. From second grade, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer like him.
My mother, originally from Ottumwa, Iowa, had twin brothers, and one came to her funeral. We never had any other contact with her family.
Monsignor Nicolas Wegner, the director of Boys Town, tried to convince me to become a priest, which I soon determined was not my career path. In my senior year, I applied to Cornell, Harvard, and Notre Dame.
I really wanted to go to Notre Dame because my brother John ’66 would be a senior at Notre Dame. He had been the mayor of Boys Town twice, which was a big honor, and I had always admired him as the biggest influence on me at the Home. John was the Notre Dame 1965-66 Blue Circle’s chairman. After John’s graduation, he worked for Ave Maria Press in South Bend, then got married in Sacred Heart Church, and the celebrant was Father Hesburgh. He then eventually moved back to Omaha.
When it came time for Msgr. Wegner to write me letters of recommendation to three colleges I applied to, he wouldn’t do it. He was concerned that I would not attend church while at Notre Dame. I did not get into any of my top choices, so I went to Creighton University in Omaha for my freshman year.
Before Christmas 1965, I took the train to South Bend to visit Brother Wilson in the admissions office. He arranged for me to get the Haley Scholarship, which was started by a father in Indiana who had lost a child at a young age. It was the same full-ride scholarship that my brother John had been awarded. Msgr. Wegner was unhappy with my transfer, and we lost touch—at least for a while.
I lived in Dillon Hall for all three years. In my sophomore and junior years, I lived with upperclassmen, which was OK because, being the youngest in my family, I was used to hanging out with older guys. I roomed with Miguel “Mike” Abeyta ’68 from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 153 Dillon Hall sophomore year; my brother John was a rector in Dillon Hall that year. The next year, my roomie was John Stafford ’68, a pre-med major. In my senior year, I had a single room in 143 Dillon.
I worked for Dean Burke and Assistant Dean Robert Glennan in the Freshman Year of Studies office for my three years at ND. Glennan went on to become the president of Emporia University in Kansas. My father died on August 7, 1968—the same day as my mother’s death. My Social Security death benefit was $110 per month, which was a lot of money for a student in those days.
Before the summer of 1968, I reconciled with Msgr. Wegner, who had gotten over my transfer to ND. I wanted a job as a camp counselor at Lake Okoboji, and he offered me a spot. The boys knew that I had been one of them, and it was a great summer.
In 1966, I took introductory philosophy with Professor Guido Kung. Several classmates steered me away from taking Fr. Brennan’s logic class, and I took Fr. David Burrell’s logic class in the spring, and our first assignment was to read Alice in Wonderland. Fr. Burrell was terrific, and I decided to major in philosophy. There were only twenty-five of us majoring in the subject. We often had classes at professors’ homes or at a local bar.
Classmate Tom Reynolds was the only football player in our major. I loved going to see him fight in the Bengal Bouts. He was a brawler and also talented at playing pool. We got to be buddies, especially after he lost his father the same summer I lost mine. I remember spending one weekend at his family’s home near Lake Michigan.
I enjoyed taking Professor John Oesterle’s Collegiate Seminar class and also Father Ray Runde’s class at Saint Mary’s—a charming man. I remember walking to our commencement with Professor Joe Evans—quite the character.
My only regret about my Notre Dame experience was being a transfer student. It’s difficult to come in a year late, having missed the opportunity to meet and bond with many of our classmates’ freshman year.
Holy Ghost Catholic School in Omaha hired me to teach seventh- and eighth-grade science—the first male teacher they ever had. I showed up in my 1969 orange Javelin that I had purchased the previous spring. I also taught art one day a week and phys ed, which involved the basketball team. I started the girls’ softball team. With an apartment, my Javelin, and a hot meal at lunch every weekday, I was living large. The following summer, I went back to the Bayside Inn in Newport Beach, where I met my future wife, Nora Klimson, who was originally from Morrison, Illinois.
My lottery number was fifteen, so I decided to enlist in the Army. I got lucky and ended up in Germany. I had finished basic training and completed advanced artillery training at Fr. Sill in Oklahoma in July 1971. I told Nora, “Let’s get married,” and we did. Soon, I was on my way to Frankfurt and then to Stuttgart.
When I got to Frankfurt, Germany, a sergeant asked, “Is there anyone here with a college degree who can type?” I immediately raised my hand and ended up working in an office in downtown Frankfurt. After three weeks, I received the news that a drunk driver had killed my mother-in-law in Rock Springs, Illinois. The Army flew me home for the funeral, and Nora returned with me. She got a job working for Special Services. During that time, we got many chances to travel around Europe. I had a three-year commitment to the Army, but I was able to apply for an early out and got discharged eight months early.
Career and Family
The GI bill paid me benefits to attend Creighton’s law school, and I graduated with honors in May of 1976. I was a founding partner of Lamson Dugan & Murry, doing trial work to include criminal, divorce, and civil law.
I never lost my love of running and competed in the Lincoln and Omaha marathons annually for fifteen years. I also enjoy playing golf even though I was a much better runner than a golfer. I also swim, bike, and do target shooting.
Nora and I will celebrate our fiftieth anniversary this July. Our son, Rob, is the choir director and Fine Arts chairman at Creighton Prep High School. He is married to Taryn, and they have three children. Our daughter, Kellie, is married to Jeff Olson, and they have three girls. Kellie is a trial lawyer and practices personal injury and defense law. Starting with my father, we are a three-generation legal family, each separated by thirty-seven years in becoming lawyers. I am quite proud of that. We enjoy spending as much time as I can with our grandchildren, who all live in Omaha.