Alice in Wonderland

Graduate school can be a cold, unforgiving place: rules and standards that change every semester, professors who can scarcely be bothered, and the constant dread that, even were one to navigate successfully all the terrors and obstacles, an actual job would be as illusory as the mirage of water that draws desperate men further and further into the desert

Sometimes, however, one finds an oasis in the midst of the desiccated wilderness: not one brimming with physical water (although free coffee is nice), but the sort of “living water” that makes one understand what Christ was talking about with the Samaritan woman at the well. “Living water” keeps your spirit alive and gives you hope, makes you feel “at home” when everything else belittles you, threatens to tear you down, and throw you out as “unfit.”

“Living water,” as Jesus taught the Samaritan woman, does not come from a well, nor does it come from an institution. “Living water” can only come from a person. Christians believe that “living water” always has its ultimate source in Jesus Christ. But we also know that human beings can become – indeed, are created to become – instruments of that grace.

During my graduate school years, the oasis for many poor souls was in the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, and the “living water” flowed from two souls: the late, great Ralph McInerny and his humble, ever-dutiful, faithful, and loving administrative assistant and partner-in-grace, Alice Osberger, an “adopted mother” to many of us, as well as mother to her own four children. Who passed away peacefully this week and is being buried today.

I write these words knowing that there will be literally hundreds of people who will know exactly who I am talking about, because of her decades-long involvement with Ralph McInerny and his seemingly endless series of projects designed to build up the Church, nurture Catholic faith, and pass on the wisdom of St. Thomas. (Of Ralph, his wife Connie used to say: “he woke up every morning with another plan to save Western Civilization.”) Among Ralph’s projects in which Alice was instrumental were Crisis magazine, The Basics of Catholicism summer seminars, Catholic Dossier, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the Summer Thomistic Institutes, the International Catholic University, the Notre Dame Medieval Institute, the American Maritain Association, The Catholic Thing: the list could go on and on. For years she did all that while serving as secretary of Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute, and later, as secretary of the Jacques Maritain Center.

Alice Osberger and husband Dan, as they were years ago and are now again
Alice Osberger and husband Dan, as they were years ago and are now again

In every venture in which Ralph McInerny was a part, Alice was at the heart of it, doing the paperwork, filling out the forms, sending out the letters, keeping the books, and dealing with the logistical problems. Ralph McInerny had many gifts, but paperwork and keeping the books were not among them. I can remember him one day hopelessly fumbling with the copy machine and crying out in frustration: “Alice, save my soul!” She came over gracefully, gently took the paper tray from his hands, and righted things. Copies were soon flowing. Ralph would have been the first one to admit that nothing he did would have been possible without Alice.

Each summer for years, I have had the great blessing of returning to the Maritain Center, now under the capable direction of John O’Callaghan, and each time having the joy of being greeted by Alice’s cheery hello. All summer she would look after me, making sure my paperwork was in order so that I could park, use the library, and all the other essential things one does at a university.

To all those who knew Alice – perhaps having met her at a summer institute or spoke with her on the phone – allow me to put a certain fear to rest. I saw Alice on Friday when she left work. She was still sharp, took a walk nearly every day at lunch, and still did the work of three secretaries. She smiled and said, “Have a good weekend.” I told her to do the same, just as we had done each day at 4 o’clock for many summers. Over the weekend, she had a stroke and by Monday she was in hospice care with her loving family around her. On the morning of the third day, she died quietly and was received into the bosom of her Lord. She was 87 years old.

You might think I entitled this article “Alice in Wonderland” to suggest that Alice (Osberger, not Liddell) is now in “Wonderland” (i.e., “heaven”). Not quite. Actually, I’ve always found “Wonderland” to be a rather forbidding place: odd, exciting, bizarrely beautiful, but not a place you’d want to stay for long.

No, I was thinking of “Wonderland” with all its bizarre characters as a metaphor for university life. Each person can make his or her own associations; they’re obvious enough (Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, was a university professor, after all). Which professors are “mad as a hatter”? Which administrators are like the Cheshire Cat, a smile with nothing behind it? Which mid-level bureaucrats are white rabbits, always watching the clock and running late? Who among the faculty are Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, constantly fighting and contradicting one another? And then there’s Humpty Dumpty, the person – faculty or student – whose life is always falling apart and can never quite “get it together.”

No, this world is “Wonderland”: filled with wonders aplenty, but not home. Our Alice walked through it with good cheer, gentle manners, and concern for all of Wonderland’s bizarre creatures. But dear Alice has gone back now through the looking glass, to a world more real, where she sees her Lord “not as in a glass darkly, but face to face.”

I’m confident that Alice now enjoys the heavenly banquet, but this March Hare’s mad tea parties are never going to be quite as merry without her.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.