Dick Nussbaum

What hasn’t he done for Notre Dame, South Bend and the state of Indiana? 

Here is something that might surprise the powers that be at the University of Notre Dame about their go-to guy for just about anything.  

Dick Nussbaum loves mob movies.  

He doesn’t even know how many times he has watched “The Godfather,” and he even managed to sit through “Godfather III.” If he lived in an earlier era and decided to take his legal career in a different direction, he easily could have been Tom Hagen, the consigliere to the Corleone family.

That thought brings a twinkle to Nussbaum’s eyes. “Well, he really was a good lawyer.”

Actually, there is a real-world connection between the Robert Duvall character and Richard Nussbaum. Both are intensely loyal and trustworthy—and, when asked to get the job done, they go out and do the job very well. Oh, and both were and are terrific lawyers.

Ask anybody in South Bend or at Notre Dame what he or she thinks of Nussbaum—and the range of answers is not wide. The spectrum seems to run from “He’s the nicest guy I ever met” to “He’s the best lawyer I have ever known” to “He is the most humble person you could ever know.”

Now, wait a minute. Surely someone, somewhere has some juicy stories about this guy? Maybe Mary Pat, his wife of 38 years?

You could not hire a team of image consultants to do a better job of describing this guy than Mary Pat: “He is a true friend that you can trust, a man who is honorable and incredibly faithful. He’s got it all and I am so fortunate to have met him.” Now that is one big “wow.” And guess what Mary Pat? Your husband said pretty much the same thing about you. Not bad for two people who met for the first time at the South Bend airport (more on that later).  

Nussbaum was just months away from leaving Notre Dame and South Bend, probably for good. He bumped into his eventual wife-to-be (they both remember the exact date: March 18, 1974) with plans to head back home to western Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburgh Law School and fell so head over heels for her that he changed course practically on the fly and enrolled at the Notre Dame Law School. Had he moved on it would have not been only Notre Dame’s loss but South Bend’s, and even the state of Indiana’s, as well.

Besides owning two Notre Dame degrees, Nussbaum’s résumé after that is beyond impressive, and it may be unique. He has been a member of the University’s Board of Trustees since 2006. He also has the distinction of having served as president of both the Notre Dame Monogram Club and the Alumni Association. And, in 2014, he became the recipient of the Sorin Award given annually to a graduate who has rendered distinguished service to the University. It qualifies as one of the highest honors given by the Alumni Association. 

The words Nussbaum chose in accepting the Sorin Award may speak louder about the man than the award itself: “I have been enormously blessed to interact with Notre Dame. I am absolutely convinced most, given the opportunities, would meet or exceed anything I have done.” Meet? Well, maybe. Exceed? Doubtful.

This is not false humility on Nussbaum’s part. Mary Pat claims that with each honor—and being on those boards is an honor—her husband comes home and is stunned that he was the one selected. He points out over and over that he is just one of many graduates who give back quietly, just trying to do good things in life. As for his continuing role on the Board of Trustees, Nussbaum emphasizes this is not a board that meets a couple times a year, attends a football game and then rubber-stamps everything put in front of it. Without giving anything away about the process, he makes it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. No topics are off-limits, and the main goal is to protect the Catholic mission of the University.

Nussbaum is a member of the Monogram Club because he played baseball for the Irish under legendary coach Jake Klein. Playing baseball, he says, gave him a sense of belonging, a group with which to bond—and it taught him the value of discipline and hard work, qualities that have defined his life ever since. He says Klein (the longest-tenured coach ever at Notre Dame) was underappreciated, not necessarily for his managing skills, but for the way he molded boys into men. Nussbaum is convinced it was the stature of Klein that may have saved baseball as a varsity sport, and yes, there were whispers way back when that it might have to become a club sport to keep the athletic department budget in the black.

In addition to his possible record number of honors from Notre Dame, he also may have another one, though not one you would find on a résumé. He’s probably the student who lived more years (six) in Cavanaugh Hall than any other student, the last two as an assistant rector. He worked with the almost larger-than-life rector of Cavanaugh, Father Matt “One Shoe” Miceli, who had this trick to catch any unsuspecting students, mostly naïve freshmen, if the rector thought they were up to no good after hours. Miceli would run down the hall wearing one shoe, causing the about-to-be-nabbed students to believe he was slowly walking down the hall.   

So from Cavanaugh Hall to the Nussbaum home on the east side of South Bend (just a touchdown pass away from the real house that Knute Rockne built on Wayne Street), Nussbaum took his legal expertise and used it not only for service to Notre Dame but public service as well. Much of the latter is the result of a bond and trust he developed with Joe Kernan, former mayor of South Bend and later the Indiana lieutenant governor and governor. Nussbaum served at Kernan’s side in all three jobs. Kernan, who also played baseball at Notre Dame, calls Nussbaum the finest man and lawyer he has ever met. This relationship has turned into a mutual admiration society and, while Nussbaum is only six years younger, he says he looks up to Kernan for all he has accomplished in life and his heroic service in Vietnam where he was held as a prisoner of war.

Nussbaum grew up outside Pittsburgh in a blue-collar family at a time just before the demise of the steel industry. He thinks that upbringing had much to do with an outlook on life he carries with him today—a strong loyalty to family, friends and your local community. To this day he says he bleeds three colors—blue and gold and black and gold, for his beloved Irish and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That baseball connection keeps popping up in Nussbaum’s life and résumé so often that it’s uncanny. How did he bump into and meet Mary Pat? He was coming back from a spring break baseball trip for Notre Dame, and she was returning from a real spring break at Saint Mary’s and they met at the luggage carousel. Darn good thing those two flights landed minutes apart.

The Nussbaums’ son, Matt, also played baseball at Notre Dame and is now a lawyer for the Major League Baseball Players Association. And the only funny story anyone can recall about Nussbaum has to do with Matt’s days at Notre Dame. It seems dad, just a coincidence of course, kept wandering out to baseball practice and bumping into his son to give him a tip or two. Finally, Matt had enough and said, “Dad, is it okay if I borrow your university? It will only be four years and I promise to give it back.”

Anyone who knows the man can tell you this: He is not giving back Notre Dame, but he will always give back to Notre Dame.