Stories

Remembering Father Lange

I arrived at Notre Dame for Freshman orientation in late August, 1965.  Besides moving into fourth floor Breen Phillips Hall, my father and I were delighted to be able to watch the first football game of the season on a big screen set up in Stepan Center where the Irish easily defeated Cal at Cal.  During the first few weeks of my freshman year I did much exploring of the campus and was fascinated, yet somewhat intimidated by the sounds emanating from the first floor of Brownson Hall where a weight room was in full use.  You couldn’t see much through the windows from the ground outside because the first level of the building at this point was about 4 feet higher than outside grade level.  But you could hear the action through the many open windows.  It wasn’t until the beginning of the second semester that I summoned the courage to enter Father Lange’s domain and make my way back to the left rear of the room where the great man sat, working on a crossword puzzle as he did during most of his day presiding over the activities of the room.

I approached the desk and as I looked at Father Lange I was sure he would either ignore me or without looking up ask me in a gruff manner what I wanted and why was I wasting his time.  His bushy wild eye brows and his almost shaved head tended to suggest he was not a teddy bear.  But, he was.  He put down his crossword puzzle and looked up at me, removed both pairs of eye glasses he wore, one on top of the other as his own version of bifocals, and asked in a gentle voice if I wanted to sign up to use the weights during the second semester.  I answered affirmatively and he told me the fee was $5 per semester and there were no exceptions and failure to ante up the fee would prohibit me access  to the facilities subject to rather severe consequences should I try to violate the regulation.  I learned a short time later that the consequence referenced was a sudden airborne five pound plate directed at the offending party.  You had to be on your toes when lifting at Father Lange’s.  So I paid the $5 and Father Lange added my name to his log book which looked like it had been around for a long time and, I believe, was numbered as if it were another in a long string of log books going back to Knute Rockne.  I wouldn’t doubt it if Knute had signed a Father Lange log book when they were both at ND.

The weight room entrance was via a tunnel that ran beneath the second floor of Brownson Hall from an interior courtyard to the road leading to the rear of the Golden Dome.  You had to climb about 5 wooden steps to a platform from which you entered the one and only door to the room.  I would guess the room was about 40 feet deep by 20 feet wide and 10 – 12 feet high.  To the right of the main door as you entered was a set of stairs down to what you might call the locker room.  Actually it was the basement filled with rows of wooden cubby holes and benches all constructed a few generations before by Father Lange himself.

As I remember the physical layout of the room, as you entered just in from the door was the pullup bar where upon one of its supports Father Lange posted a permanent challenge that $50 would be given to anyone who could hang from the bar for 20 straight minutes.  Just beyond the pullup bar was a bench press set up and beyond that was a wooden quarter round shaped device where lifters could hold onto a rope around one of the 3 steel columns while arched over this device facing upwards and do leg raises to strengthen the abs.  This rack was also used for dumbbell flies.  Steve Quinn held the record, as I remember from one of Father Lange’s pencil print on grade school brown papers which were posted on the steel columns, at 18 reps with something like 100 or 120 lb. dumbbells.  You could also win a cash prize if you could military press 150 pounds a minimum of 15 repetitions and I think Steve Quinn did that also.  Just past this arched rack was the main bench press area then just pass this was the platform used for military presses, clean and jerks and barbell snatches.  I watched awe struck as Kent Durso set the weight room record with a clean and jerk of 300 pounds.  I think Kent weighed about 135 pounds at the time. I also think Mike Burgener went beyond that later.  Finally there were the low benches used to do dips and a padded bench with belts to do upper body raises and propeller spins while hanging half way off the bench. Then, the full height mirrors.  These were all as you looked from the door down the center of the room.

On the east side of the room which was to the right of the door as you entered you would find the stairs to the locker dungeon next to which was a rack for doing _ squats, presses from shoulder height and dead lifts.  Beyond that was an ingenious leg press device designed and built by Father Lange where you loaded 50 pound plates onto one of three steel vertical pipes originating from a 3 inch thick wooden yolk (you could use it for squats standing upright).  The whole thing was set on two 2 inch pipes set in 2 larger pipes affixed to the base platform so you could raise the yolk up under control.  On the wooden base was an angled platform on which you would lie to extend your legs upwards to engage the yolk to do full leg presses.  It was a solidly built device that challenged those who were able to work with substantial weight.  When I was a junior, I was able to press the yolk and about 17 50lb. plates which were precariously perched on the pipes above the yolk.  I used to work with Mark Vogel during this time and would spot him as he would load on 22 or more 50 pounders which gave me the willies because I had to make sure none of these plates would fall off and smash his face.  Next to this rack was the official squat rack where Paul Gill used to spend most of his time.

On the west side of the room from front to back was the toilet, the sink, a barbell lifting area, an inclined bench, the floor in front of which was disintegrating from lifters dropping barbells on it, the dumbbell racks along the wall and a low dumbbell bench press bench.  Then there was a filing cabinet, which I later learned contained drinking glasses and Father Lange’s desk with 2 chairs in front of it and a closet off the back right where he stored stuff like jackets that he would give out for milestone events.

In my junior year I began to work out with Bill Moran who was an avid weight lifter who pushed me and everyone else to add more weight.  We used to workout 5 days a week alternating upper and lower body routines.  We would add up the weight we would lift to see how many tons of weight we would handle each week.  But it was the peanuts we liked best.

Yes, you all must remember the peanuts that Father Lange spread on the stairs and the walkway in the tunnel for Billy the squirrel and his pals.  Billy used to show up if you called out “Billy, Billy, Billy”.  Of course two of Billy’s best pals were Bill Moran and me as we would take a break every once and a while and go out and eat some of the peanuts.  An interesting aside to this is the fact that in 1972 I returned to ND for law school and lived in the room just above the tunnel in Brownson Hall.  Remembering Father Lange’s peanuts I began to carry a bunch around with me to feed to the 4 or 5 million giant gray squirrels (that were actually more brown than gray) that lived all over the campus.  Then one day as I came out of the entrance into the courtyard I recalled the Billy story so on a whim I began to call for Billy.  Within a few seconds, a squirrel popped his head out of a hole about 15 feet up a large Maple or Oak tree in the court yard, looked at me then proceeded to climb down the tree, walk up to me and sit upright waiting for peanuts.  It was as if it was saying to me, “alright, you called, I came so where’s the food?”  I pulled a bunch of peanuts out of my pocket and handed them over and watched him devour them all then wait for the second course.  I dumped a bunch in front of him and went to class.  Do you think it might have been Billy?  How long do squirrels live, anyway?

In the spring of 1968, Mike Burgener succeeded in having the Indiana State weight lifting and body building contest held at ND in the old field house on the basket ball court.  He enlisted Bill Moran and me to help with getting the weights cleaned up and transported from the weight room to the field house then back.  Of course, the hardest thing Mike had to do is get permission from Father Lange to take the weights from the weight room to the field house because all of the weights and racks were owned personally by Father Lange.  He agreed only on the condition that we have them back the day after the meet which was held on a Saturday.  Bill and I were tasked with maintaining several of the Olympic bars so they would permit the plates to spin without friction.  We took the best 3 bars, removed the collars and then the rollers to then clean the goo built up on the bar itself.  We cleaned the bar and the inside of the rollers with something like Mr. Clean then took emery cloth to the bar over which the roller spun and proceeded to wear ourselves out with the emery cloth.  Burgener would test our progress and make us do it over and over again and after a while Father Lange chimed in with, “do it again, do it again”.  Burgener figured that once the bar was sanded then relubricated with Ponds hand lotion, a 45 pound plate could be spun once by hand and keep spinning on its own until someone had to stop it.

Once the barbell maintenance was complete, Moran and I had to find a way to transport about 2,000 pounds of plates and bars to the fieldhouse.  So Bill talked a friend of his in loaning us his 1961 Ford Falcon station wagon telling him we just had a few cumbersome things to take to and from the fieldhouse.  I don’t think Bill’s friend believed us.  Well, we loaded it all up the Friday morning before the meet and slowly drove around the infirmary, Sanborn Hall, the old biology building, the fire station, the north dining hall, Farley Hall and finally Breen Philips Hall to the rear of the field house.  Unfortunately, the  owner of the car saw us crawling with the frame of the car about _ inch above the ground and after we unloaded the weights he took the car back and refused to let us use it for the return.  So we went out and reserved a van to use the Sunday after the meet so Father Lange wouldn’t get mad at us for not returning the weights when he told us to.

That Sunday after the meet, Bill and I went up to Michigan to rent the van and then drove back to load up the weights.  We threw the weights in the van and headed back to Father Lange’s but realized we were too early since he wasn’t going to open the weight room until around noon.  So, what would two enterprising weight lifters do with a ton of barbells and plates and time to kill on warm sunny Sunday?  Yup, we drove back to Michigan to buy beer.  We knew that Father Lange was a sucker for Strohs beer so we thought we would show our appreciation in a proper manner.

On the way back to the weight room Bill took the turn by the old ROTC building behind the Rock a bit too fast and the side door of the van opened up emitting about 5 45 pound plates which remarkably exited rolling toward and into the lake at the point where Father Duck usually fed the ducks and geese that hung out there.  Bill and I had to find some long poles to pull the plates out of the water and get them back in the van and not be late meeting Father Lange.  We made it with 2 minutes to spare.

Before I get into the conversation Moran and I had with Father Lange after we brought the weights back to the weight room, how many of you Father Langers had the chance to assist Father Lange in his daily set of dumbbell bench presses?  I remember the one time Bill Moran and I served as assistants.  We were working in the dumbbell area (sounds like a part of a saloon occupied by a bunch of blondes) when we noticed Father Lange waddling from his desk towards us.  He stopped in front of the low bench, sat down, looked at me and said, “I want a 65 pound dumbbell for my left hand and an 85 pounder for my right.”  He then flopped back onto the bench, raised his arms and said, “okay, let me have ‘em”.  Bill and I handed the dumbbells to him and he ripped off 10 reps as fast as anyone could.  He then said, “okay, I’m done”.  Bill and I took the dumbbells from him, put them back on the rack then helped up from the bench.  I asked him, “Father, you didn’t breathe during that whole set, how come?”  He said, “Oh I take a deep breath on my way over here in the morning and one on the way back after I lock up at night, I don’t need any more than that”.  At this point I asked Father Lange what had happened to his left bicep which, as you all will recall, was caved in.  He said that several years ago (maybe when he was around 70) he was doing his dumbbell bench presses with 120 pounds in each hand when the bicep ruptured causing the dumbbell to crash down onto his nose, ala the smashed in nose we all remember so well.

So Bill and I finished putting the weights back in their proper places then broke out the six pack of Strohs we bought for Father Lange.  He looked at the beer, his eyes went wide, he jumped up as if he didn’t have diabetes or phlebitis, ran around the desk, opened the filing cabinet, pulled out three steins, ran down to the sink and washed them out, ran back to us, stuck out one of the glasses and said, “Pour!”  Moran poured him one and he walked around and sat down at his desk and drank the beer like he hadn’t had a lick of anything to drink in weeks.  He told us that the nurses at the infirmary, where he lived, wouldn’t let him drink beer anymore because of his diabetes, which is why the case of Strohs he kept chilled in water under the sink at the front of the room was no longer there.  He made us take the rest of the beer with us and promise not to mention it to the nurses so he wouldn’t get in trouble.  Now, at any time did any of you treat yourself to beer at Father Lange’s?

In 1926, my father, John Fitzpatrick, was a freshman living in Freshman Dorm which was right next door to Sophomore Dorm (how convenient).  These dorms were cheaply made barrack like buildings built during the First World War that were located about where Farley and Breen Philips are now.  The students referred to them as Pasteboard Palaces because they were 2×4 wood framed walls with a thin pasteboard sheathing (like sheet rock only weaker and flakier).  Father Lange was the Rector of Sophomore Dorm and he ruled quietly yet forcefully.  In those days, the doors were locked at 8 PM and lights were out at 10 PM and the slightest infraction of the rules of conduct was severely punished.  It didn’t take much to get bounced out of the University.  But Father Lange didn’t agree with the penalty system.  He believed that boys would be boys and the residents of Sophomore Dorm were just that, boys.  As such, there would always be little infractions for which punishment was due but not of a life changing form like expulsion from school.  As Bill Moran and I spoke with Father Lange on the early Sunday afternoon I told him of my father’s remembrance of several incidents.  The first was during student move in.  Father Lange was walking back from the Admin building reading something.  Two students were struggling with a loaded steamer trunk and had put it down just in front of the dorm entrance.  Father Lange bumped into it while continuing to read, he stopped, looked down at this trunk, reached down, grabbed the handle on the top and with one hand, picked it up and moved it out of his way then proceeded into the dorm.  The second event was late one evening after lights out during the winter when one of the students was pushed out of the dorm entrance with little more covering his birthday suit than a skimpy towel.  He was making all kinds of racket until Father Lange let him back in.  When I asked Father Lange about this he said that he had tossed the offender out and locked the door to punish him for taking a shower after lights out.  Actually, he said, what bothered him most was not that the student was violating the lights out rule but his singing was so bad something drastic had to be done to stop it.

Bill Moran and I asked him about his heritage and he told us he was born in Europe and he and his family immigrated to the US when he was a small boy, probably in the 1890s.  They lived in a typical immigrant setting and he began to learn the English language as he played with the neighbor boys.  He told us that one day he came home and went up to his mother and said he learned a new word.  She asked what it was and what did it mean and he told her he didn’t know what it meant but the word was “sumabitch”.  He then said that the next day when he came home his mother grabbed him, washed his mouth out with soap and told him what that new word meant.

Bill and I asked him if he had participated in weight lifting meets like the one we just had.  He said he had been involved in competitions like that but nothing of an extensive nature. He then said that in 1927 he was considered the 4th strongest man in the world and held the world record for the bench press at 407 pounds for 7 reps.  I asked him why 7 reps.  He said he was trying for 10 but started to laugh for some reason and had to stop.

In the fall of 1968, the new Athletic and Convocation Center (now the Joyce ACC) was finished and opened.  Father Lange’s weights, racks, platforms and desk were moved to a room just behind the hockey rink.  Father Lange did not move with the stuff.  In the spring of 1969, I bumped into the good father outside the infirmary and asked him why he didn’t run the weight room in the ACC.  He said he didn’t trust the building and was afraid it would fall on his head.  The truth be told, I think the administration didn’t want the bother of taking him to and from the new location so he could continue doing what he loved most which was to be with young people who were doing what he knew best.

Although I graduated in 1969, I stayed another year for a second degree and spent lots of time in the new weight room.  As I sat one evening at Father Lange’s old desk, I found some of the hand written record notices that Father Lange had posted in the old weight room.  I looked around at those lifting and other than Paul Gill, Bill Moran, Elio Polselli, Frank Criniti and Tom O’hara, I didn’t recognize many lifters.  I thought that were I to take out the few records notices left in the desk and post them in this new facility, without the presence of Father Lange, they would be lost to the majority of patrons of this new weight room.  So I took them from the desk and held onto them until several years ago when I realized I could find addresses for several of the record holders.  By this time, most of the names and information had faded except for the 300 pound clean and jerk by Kent Durso and the flies record by Steve Quinn.  I hereby apologize to Rocky Bleier as I had the notice of his massive military press accomplishment but something chewed it up to the point of disintegration, or I would have sent it to you.

Father Lange died a year later at 82 years old.  I think that if he had continued to run the weight room, even in a place he thought would crash down onto him, he would have lived a number of years longer.

As to the results of the 1968 Mr. Indiana Weight Lifting and Body Building Championship, Mike Bergener was far and away the winner of his weight bracket and he almost outdid the dude who was the heavy weight winner.  I recall a successful lift of around 340 pounds but would like Mike to fill in the details of his victory.  There was also another ND student who was a sophomore, I think, who won, like, the 148 pound division with some obscene lift of around 250 pounds.  I don’t recall that person’s name so if he would be so kind as to respond and tell me, I would be most appreciative.

To all of you who read this, if you have anything to add or corrections of items I may not have quite right, I welcome the input.  I think I will also try to draw the floor plan of the old weight room and send it around for consideration.  This is great and Pall Gill is to be commended for getting it off the ground.

Ed Fitzpatrick - Class of 1969