As one of 12 black freshmen at Notre Dame in 1965, Dr. Bill Hurd was a pioneer.
His life is one of giant steps. A five-time All-American sprinter — he still holds two Notre Dame records and nearly qualified for the 1968 Olympic team — Hurd was also an honors electrical engineering student and a standout jazz saxophonist who was named “most promising sax” at the Collegiate Jazz Festival.
In Hurd’s senior year, Ara Parseghian personally invited him to join the football team for a season (he played wideout). Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, encouraged him apply for a Rhodes Scholarship (he was a finalist).
Now a practicing ophthalmologist with two U.S./foreign patents for ocular devices, the Memphis native annually travels to such places as Madagascar, Mexico and Kenya, where he performs pro bono eye surgeries for hundreds.
“Most of these people [have] never seen a doctor before, let alone an eye surgeon,” says Hurd, who is composing an autobiography tentatively titled Memphis to Madagascar.
Even with a career as remarkable as his — “I’ve been very blessed,” he says — Hurd is reticent to single out a defining moment. There is his latest album, Return of the Hip, which opened in 2014 near the top of the Memphis jazz charts. There is the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award he received in 1994 alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other legends. There is the pride, shared with his wife, Rhynette, of seeing their sons Bill Jr. and Ryan ’05 attend Notre Dame.
If there is a defining moment, it might be this: During one of his medical journeys to Madagascar, Hurd successfully restored vision to an elderly woman who “had never seen her grandchild before.” The surgery complete, Hurd removed her eye patch. As she saw her family for the first time, “She just started crying. And I did too.”
(A note about the photo: I helped Barbara and Kerry Prugh, Notre Dame Magazine’s art director, scout several locations for the photoshoot. We ultimately chose the University’s motor pool as the backdrop. The gritty concrete-and-metal interior matched Don’s blue-collar look. Speaking of which: The outfit? All Don. He arrived at the shoot from a junkyard, where he was searching for spare parts for his daughter’s car.)
It is 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and the six resident assistants of Alumni Hall are sitting in a third-floor apartment in their dorm, trying politely to convince the governor of Indiana to go downstairs with them and try a slice of student-made Dawg Pizza.
I jumped out of a plane. Then I wrote about it. The beginning:
Way up there, in the first weightless moments of free fall at 10,500 feet, the cold atmosphere is silent.
There are only wisps of sound: of thudding heartbeat, of nylon jumpsuit against parachute container, of clinking metal fasteners, of the plane’s droning engine fading into nothingness above. An island of whispers through a vast stillness.
Gravity vanishes. It is still there, of course, tugging downward, but its apparent absence is palpable in sudden weightlessness. Stomach flutters upward. Nerves spark with energy. Brain struggles — and fails — to comprehend it. To process it. Total free fall.
When I was in high school, I played keyboards in a rock band. After a few years of playing, we were good enough play at the Stone Pony, a dive famous (at least in New Jersey) as the bar where Bruce Springsteen got his start.
We clearly had no idea what the hell we were doing.