The Tulsa Irish

by Claire Spears


My freshman year roommate was a five-foot-one Korean-American via Seoul, Los Angeles, and New York. She had never heard of Oklahoma before she met me, and only after living together for about six months did she begin to conceptualize Oklahoma and Tulsa, geographically and culturally. She was also directionally challenged and perpetually lost, maybe because the Notre Dame campus doesn’t follow a grid system like New York or offer scheduled public transit. She would call me asking for directions to the most recognizable location on campus, the golden dome of the administration building where a golden caste of the Virgin Mary watches over campus. My inevitable response would be, “Ally, look up. Just walk toward the gold thing.” Needless to say, she came to be known for her entirely obvious discoveries.

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One night freshman year, Ally barged into our room after coming home from the LaFortune Student Center with a look of complete shock on her face. I naturally assumed this was the result of somehow making it back to the correct dorm room. But no, she gaped at me. “Did you know the LaFortunes are from Tulsa?” she asked. “Of course,” I said, not really looking up at her. She had found their plaque in the student center, the one giving a brief history of the family and their donation. To her, their hailing from Tulsa was the most unlikely of coincidences. After all, in her mind, Oklahoma had a population of about ten.

What begins as a strange coincidence, though—a Tulsa family’s name on the Notre Dame campus map—leads to a hardly random pattern. Tulsa is smattered all over Notre Dame in family named campus locations, endowed faculty chairs, and student legacies: LaFortune Student Center, Warren Golf Course, Siegfried Hall, [1] Biolchini Hall of Law [2]. While obvious if you’re from there, the Tulsa connection goes unnoticed by most, just as the Notre Dame connection goes unnoticed by many Tulsans.

This curious link between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and South Bend, Indiana, pulls the two unlikely cities (some 750 miles apart) together, intertwining their pasts, presents, and foreseeable futures. On the surface neither metropolis has an imperative need for the other. Therefore, to understand the strange Tulsa-to-Notre Dame tie, we should create a genealogy of sorts, tracing the LaFortune Student Center, from where I’m writing, to its inception. As with the other Tulsa-sounding buildings, the background is more storied than even the light brick and dark roofing that color so much of the Notre Dame architecture.

* * *

The LaFortunes called South Bend home for generations. Former Tulsa Mayor Robert LaFortune’s great grandfather was a gardener on campus for 38 years, and his grandfather worked in the tin shop, soldering lids on the canned food that the university produced. Notre Dame then included the college and a Manual Labor School and shops, all founded in 1844. Carpentry, locksmith, shoe, tailor, paint, and tin shops ran by university Brothers sat next to academic to servicing these areas. No such trade shops exist today, and the university food services extend to the two dining halls, North and South. Robert’s father, Joseph LaFortune, grew up down the street from Notre Dame’s front gates—he could probably see the golden dome from his window, the same one that I see out my dorm room window to the west.

In Joe’s day, the LaFortune connection to Notre Dame was operational rather than the educational. Notre Dame was a source of livelihood and a constant part of life, but not completely penetrable from an academic angle. In 1908, Joseph quit school after the eighth grade to work and help provide. His dropping out was not questioned, as few of the males in the family continued into high school. He took a job reading meters for Northern Indiana Gas and Electric Company, and may have retired there if not for the advice of a local businessman who urged Joe to go back to school. In 1914, he enrolled at Notre Dame as a day student in an advertising-commerce two-year program.

This curriculum and program was specifically designed for Joe, and he suspected that he was the only student to ever study in this special 18-month program. As an established family in the university’s workforce and devout Catholics, the LaFortunes came to build close relationships with the priests on campus. This “special relationship with the priests there,” as Robert called it, opened the door for Joe’s educational negotiations with the administration. His classes included chemistry taught by famous football coach Knute Rockne. Joe paid no tuition during his two years, instead paying his way by working as a groundskeeper when he wasn’t in classes.

During World War I, Joe enlisted in the Navy and enrolled in pilot training, although Robert says his father never learned to fly. After the war, Joe returned to South Bend and worked at the YMCA. It was a love of exercise that compelled him, but it was at the Y where, Robert believes, a patron told Joe, “You oughta go to Tulsa. It’s the new frontier of the oil business.” Joe led away this passing suggestion, but it proved to shape the rest of his life.

Joe was then dating his would-be wife, Gertrude Leona Tremel, a German girl from the neighboring town of Mishawaka. Joe was half-Irish, half-French. Both were all Catholic. In 1920, he left South Bend for Tulsa with a promise to Gertrude that he would return for her soon. Once in town, he went to work in the advertising department of the Tulsa Daily World. He soon left that job. “He always told the family that he got  red,” Robert said.

With time on his hands, Joe made good on his promise to Gertrude and went back to South Bend, where they soon wed. Shortly after the wedding, they packed bags and headed back to Tulsa, by train. On the Tulsa end of the journey, the newlyweds’ trunk was broken into. Robert laughed, “Mom used to say that one day she was walking down the street in Tulsa and saw her fur coat walking down the street toward her.”

The couple settled into an apartment next to the new Carnegie Library in downtown Tulsa, which prior to 1916 was housed in the basement of the Court House. From those rooms, they’d watch north Tulsa burn a year later during the Tulsa Race Riot. Somewhere, Robert said, there is a Kodak picture of the flames snapped from their window. But, he said, “Dad never talked much about that riot.”

Joe began work for the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association of Oklahoma. He then started publishing a magazine that spotlighted businesses and businessmen in the Tulsa area. This is how, in 1923, Joseph met W.K. Warren Sr. LaFortune produced a small journal for Warren called The Natural Gasser. It was a publication for which Joseph charged $50 a month to produce. Impressed with Joe’s work, Warren Sr. soon asked him to come work for Warren Petroleum. From 1924 to 1956, Joseph worked for Warren Petroleum and accumulated stock in the company. At first his paying for stock meant not taking a salary. But by the time he retired, he was Executive Vice President and Chairman of the Board and owned 30 percent of the company.

In 1946, 26 years after he moved to Tulsa, Joseph LaFortune made his first financial gift to Notre Dame.  The $100,000 unrestricted donation was an obligation that Joe said he assumed when he was given the opportunity to study at Notre Dame without tuition. He had promised himself that he would pay his tuition, eventually, when the skills he acquired led to a job and income. In 1941, Notre Dame asked Joseph to be on the Advisory Board of Lay Trustees. Eight years later, in 1949, the university presented Joseph with an honorary degree. In 1967, the advisory board became a full board of trustees and Joe remained on it until 1971 when health problems forced him to retire. The board elected him an honorary trustee for life.

Joe’s son, Joseph A. LaFortune Jr., attended for a stint in 1942 as a member of Navy ROTC and played on the golf team, but the honorary degree is the only Notre Dame degree that any immediate member of the family has received.

The university approached the LaFortunes about funding the renovation of a science hall into a student center which then opened in 1953. Now fondly referred to as “LaFun” by students, the LaFortune Center is home to the highestgrossing Subway in the region and the site of the annual (non-university sanctioned) “Bun Run,” where members of a particular male dorm run through the building naked before finals. This is also where students can buy “Quarter Dogs” on every night night at midnight—a Notre Dame  fixture.

Robert LaFortune now sits on the President’s Council at Notre Dame and continues to contribute to the university, even though he rarely makes it to South Bend. A black-and-white photo of the LaFortune Student Center façade hangs on the wall of his Philtower office. He speaks fondly of Notre Dame, I’m thinking because it gives him a chance to talk about his father. In a strong French-Catholic family, remaining connected to Notre Dame extends beyond numbers or buildings.

According to Robert, “LaFortune was originally ‘Tellier De LaFortune’ in French.” Meaning, “maker of fortune.”

* * *

As with Joseph LaFortune, economic reasons drove W.K. Warren Sr. to leave school early. And, as with LaFortune, Warren Sr. credited an acquaintance for his move to Tulsa.

Warren grew up modestly in Nashville. He too dropped out of school after the eighth grade to support his struggling family after his father died, selling newspapers and working at a railroad and hospital. There, he met a patient from Sapulpa who told him to move to Oklahoma because of the booming oil and gas business. As with Joseph, something about this bit of advice stayed with Warren Sr., and around 1917 he moved to Oklahoma and went to work for the patient’s husband’s railroad company. In 1922, Warren Sr. would start Warren Petroleum Company of Oklahoma—and meet an entrepreneurial young man from Indiana whom he would hire to produce an oil-and-gas monthly.

In time, Warren created the Warren Foundation, the charitable arm of his vast philanthropy. Over time, Notre Dame benefited from his gifts.

“If my father could have gone to college,” Bill Warren Jr. said, “he would’ve wanted to go to Notre Dame.”

As a schoolboy at Marquette and Cascia Hall, Warren dreamed of suiting up for the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame’s football squad. Though it never panned out, he still enrolled—it seemed a natural fit after attending Catholic schools his whole life. Such an education wasn’t a given in the Warren Family. Warren Sr.’s wife Natalie was a daughter of a Methodist preacher. When they wed, she and Warren Sr. agreed that any daughters they had would be raised Methodist and any sons, Catholic. An only son, Bill was his father’s only hope for having a vicarious Notre Dame experience.

Bill went to South Bend in the fall of 1952, leaving his football pads at home and focusing his energies instead on school and social life. He entered a new, experimental business management program in its second year. The head of the program had been recruited from Harvard Business School, and, as business savvy seemed to run in the Warren blood, the program appeared the logical choice.

In the ‘50s, students spent each year in a different single-sex resident hall, of which there are now 29. In his tenure, Warren was a Gentleman of St. Edward’s Hall, a Morrissey Manorite, a member of the Dillon Hall Big Red, and a resident of Walsh Hall—now a female dorm. His favorite of the four, Walsh Hall had “high ceilings and was close to the dining hall and the Rock [the Rockne athletic facility].” In a crowning achievement, Bill was elected Senior Class President at Notre Dame.

His only regret was “that the University was an all boys school. There was a ten-to-one ratio of guys to SMC [the neighboring all-girls St. Mary’s College] girls.” Warren remembers a mixer his freshman year where everyone was standing around the edges of the room too embarrassed to mingle. Before he could muster the nerve to ask the girl he liked for a dance, “a football player went over to her and kind of picked her up by the waist.” He said, “I figured I couldn’t compete with that, and I left.”

In the late ’90s, Bill heard from his golfing buddy—and two-time winner of The Masters—Ben Crenshaw that Notre Dame wanted to build a new university golf course. He was then president of Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, a club his dad had a hand in sarting. “I called up the finance director at Notre Dame while Ben was still at the house,” Warren recalled. “I asked him how much it would take to fund the course.” Then he agreed to donate the money on the condition that Crenshaw design the course. The deal was made that weekend. The golf course, completed and opened in 1999, is named in honor of his parents.

A few years later, Bill was on campus for a football game when Lou Nanni, vice president of University Relations, asked him to the locker room after the game. “Of course I wanted to do that,” Bill said. “So that’s when Lou and I became friends. I didn’t really know him before then.”  Their post-game discussion: a new student health services facility.“I had to go to the infirmary senior year for the flu,” Bill recalled. “Being sick in school is no fun at all.” Bill gave the money, and decided to name the center in honor of his father. And a horse.

“Liam” comes from William, his father’s Christian name. Bill also owned a racehorse, Saint Liam, horseracing being another of his passions. In 2005, Saint Liam won the Breeder’s Cup. In naming the health center dedicated in 2007, Bill inquired about the title’s scriptural relevance and “asked the President [Fr. Hesburgh] if there is a Saint Liam.” Hesburgh jokingly responded, “‘Well, there should be’.”

The building sits in the shadow of the shining golden dome like all of the other Tulsa-given sites, quietly proving Oklahoma’s place at Notre Dame.


1. A male residence dormitory that sits on Modern Quad—fondly referred to as “Mod Quad”—Siegfried Hall is somewhat removed from “God Quad,” the central quad of campus containing the Basilica and Administration buildings. Siegfried is known for its zeal for interhall sports, large closets, and Viking helmets (its mascot, the Rambler, is allegedly a Viking). Ray Siegfried received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Notre Dame in 1965 and founded NORDAM company in Tulsa. In 1988, Ray and his father, Robert, dedicated Siegfried Hall.

2. On South Quad, the largest on campus, the Biolchini Hall of Law sits next to Notre Dame Avenue’s main circle. In 1962 Robert Biolchini graduated Notre Dame with an undergraduate degree before going to law school at George Washington University and establishing a successful law  rm in Tulsa. He’s now CEO of PennWell Publishing Co. Five of the six Biolchini children have Notre Dame degrees. Robert’s son, Tom, who met his wife Jess at Notre Dame, said, “Attending Notre Dame seemed so natural to me.” Tom’s godfather is Ray Siegfried. Tom: “Notre Dame is special because it is ‘faith first,’ but you can also take a Notre Dame degree anywhere.”  The Biolchinis remain supporters of the university: Robert is a trustee, and Tom serves on the law school’s advisory council. Tom calls himself a “Notre Dame football nerd.”

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2012.