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By Scott Frano ’13
Hannah Storm Journalism Intern
I was told Emil T. Hofman ’53 M.S., ’63 Ph.D. is a living legend of Notre Dame. That everyone knows him, that he is a staple of the University, and that many of the 32,000 undergraduates he taught swear by him. I was also told that at 91 years old he was coming off a trip to Haiti for his birthday.
Yet I, and a few friends I asked, had never heard of him in our three years at Notre Dame.
Because of rain, I couldn’t meet Hofman at the famous bench on God Quad where the 91-year-old holds his “office hours.” Instead, we talked inside the Basilica, at what he called his “second office.” Right when I met him, I knew this was a special man.
The focus of the interview was to be about Haiti. Walking alongside Hofman, who was using his walker, I wondered how there was any way he could have made a trip to Haiti in his condition.
When I asked him how he got involved in Haiti, he left no detail out. Inspired by a talk from Father Tom Streit, C.S.C., ’80, ’85 M.Div., ’91 M.S., ’94 Ph.D. as part of a lecture series in Hofman’s name, he travelled to Haiti to learn more about Streit’s work in the impoverished nation. Father Streit, a former student of Hofman’s, had begun a program through the Gates Foundation to fight lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis. Hofman was stunned by the poverty he encountered in Haiti, where in 2005 the World Bank estimated 78 percent of the population made under $2 dollars per day.
“You have to see how filthy Haiti is for yourself,” Hofman said. “You have to make the trip to know. People can tell you about it but you have to see it and smell it yourself.”
Hofman knew almost everyone who walked by us. We frequently stopped the interview for him to have brief chats. It was clear to me that he is a well-loved man. It became clear as we talked that he has a lot of love to give as well.
Hofman saw that Streit’s program was in dire need of doctors. Hofman dipped into the pool of 8,000 doctors he had taught to set up the first of many “Hofman Reconnaissance Trips.” The trips introduce Hofman’s former students to the situation in Haiti; they help with Streit’s work and learn more about the Haitian people. The doctors then decide whether they want to make more trips.
He told me about the Saint Rose of Lima school, a place he visited on every trip. The girls there would sing to Hofman and his volunteers, and they would respond with the “Fight Song” and “Alma Mater.”
Hofman left Haiti four days before the destructive earthquake in January 2010. He was forced to fly home early due to a kidney infection. The earthquake devastated the already impoverished nation, and in the destruction Sister Esta Joseph, C.J. and every student of Saint Rose of Lima school were killed. Hofman was able to quickly gather up a large group of volunteers from past trips to set up a field hospital outside the Notre Dame Haiti Program’s earthquake-proof building.
Hofman’s voice caught for a brief moment talking about Sister Joseph and the schoolgirls, but recovered as he started talking about the recovery process. The earthquake and how it has affected Haiti is now a major part of the trips.
“I became very concerned with what the earthquake did to some of these people, to the hospitals, and to the schools,” Hofman said. “When I bring people out on a reconnaissance visit, I bring them to the scene, to see the places and meet the people.”
Hofman spoke with pride as he described how the trips have become family affairs for both him and the doctors he brings along. The doctors take their wives and children, and on his last trip, in July for his 91st birthday, Hofman took his two sons, three grandkids, and a daughter-in-law. The goal, he said, is for them to appreciate how fortunate they are to live as they do.
“I want them to see what a great percent of the people in this world live with,” Hofman said. “I want them to realize how lucky we have it living here . . . They seem to understand what we’re driving at.”
Hofman is unsure if he will be able to make another trip to Haiti. That he can even consider it at age 91 is a testament to his will and his passion for helping those in need.
He is a living legend, but his work may not yet be done.