Back in 1935, an Irish-German Catholic family in Bethlehem, Pa., huddled around the radio for the Notre Dame-Ohio State game broadcast—and 5-year-old Tom Ortwein’s heart heard the music.
Although the young fan had to wait years before he could see the Irish in person—his mother beat him to it when she watched Notre Dame-Army in Yankee Stadium in 1946 while visiting a relative in New Jersey—these days, he can’t quit.
Ortwein, 82, has attended 100 home games since 1996, and he’s nearly to that number as an usher, the role he took on in 1998, since he retired as a high school principal in Pennsylvania. He moved to Florida in 2004.
Before the visits became regular, Ortwein grabbed every chance he could for in-person cheering. In 1951, he went to Pittsburgh to watch the Irish at an away game. A decade later, during a Thanksgiving weekend conference in Chicago, he bought a $3 ticket from a family he met at the hotel elevator and took the bus and train for his first view inside the home stadium, the Iowa game.
“I have seen Notre Dame play in 17 states, including the District of Columbia,” he says. “I have seen them play 48 different teams.” He’s attended five bowl games, unfortunately 0-5 so far.
He saw Notre Dame at Pittsburgh again in 1964, and he went to two Notre Dame-Navy games in Philadelphia. When his brother Joe was an ROTC instructor in the late 1960s, he got field passes for the Oklahoma and Northwestern games. When his niece was living in Michigan, he went to the Michigan game in 1978 and Michigan State in 1979.
Ortwein, one of 13 children, and his brother Dick started coming regularly in 1996, beginning with the Washington game.
“While we were working we’d come to see a couple of games,” he says. “When we retired, we started following them pretty closely. He and I used to drive up for the games.”
One year they drove from Pennsylvania to South Bend and back for a game, then to Florida for the Navy game, then to West Virginia, then back to South Bend in consecutive weeks.
At one game, Ortwein was so impressed with an usher’s care for his wheelchair-bound brother that he asked how she got the job. (Dick died last year on the day of the USC game, after a brief stay in a hospice.)
“She was telling us how much she enjoyed doing this and the people she met,” Ortwein says. “She told me she wrote a letter. I thought, ‘Gee, that would be pretty good.’ I wrote a letter to Cappy Gagnon.”
He came for training to the 1999 Blue-Gold Game, and he’s been in Section 127 ever since.