By Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J.
March on as knights of old, with hearts as loyal and true and bold—the College song was still new a hundred years ago, when students and alumni sang it during the 1906 football season. Three senior members of that team, in particular, were ready for the challenge conveyed in those words. A remarkable trio, they left an enduring legacy to the college they loved.
George Connor, a two-year captain and an early member of the Varsity Club Hall of Fame, is generally placed on the all-time College team for his skilled performance at end. William Davitt played at tackle. And William O’Neil managed the team—a squad that, in the fall of 1906, numbered 14 and compiled a record of 4-3-1. These friends and teammates may have been present when Theodore Roosevelt addressed the graduates of 1905. At their commencement, the main speaker was the eminent American churchman, Cardinal James Gibbons, of Baltimore. They were heady days for Holy Cross and the 47 graduates of 1907.
In due course, Davitt and Connor were ordained priests in the Diocese of Springfield. When war came in 1917, both volunteered as military chaplains. Although chaplains did not engage in combat, they could participate in rescue missions. In August of 1918, on the front lines in France, Davitt learned that there were 40 wounded Americans, cut off from the main lines in a ravine. He was cited for bravery after leading a rescue party, under German machine-gun fire, that successfully brought the men back to safety. Shortly afterward, Fr. Connor, who was also in France, learned that his old teammate was stationed close by, and the two friends enjoyed a happy reunion.
Then, on Nov. 11, 1918, about 90 minutes before the armistice was to take effect, Fr. Davitt brought to his commanding officer an American flag that he had carried in his bedroll through the war. It was to be raised at 11 o’clock in celebration of the war’s end. As he was re-crossing the clearing to return to his field office, the Germans sent one last shell over the lines. A piece of shrapnel killed Davitt instantly, and, so, he became the last American officer to die in World War I.
Soldiers from his division made a casket of oak wood, lined it with an army blanket, and draped it with the flag he had so cherished. Fr. Connor presided at the funeral, the old captain now performing this final service for his fallen teammate.
Afterward, Fr. Connor described the event for Davitt’s mother:
In his regiment I found everywhere the sincerest sorrow. They had learned to love this wonderful, brave, big-hearted boy of a chaplain. The colonel, his officers and men, marched behind their regimental band, bearing his precious remains to the yard of the little village church that nestled almost unharmed amidst the ruins around it. I had the sad duty of conducting the services and laying at rest my old friend, our brave chaplain and your devoted son, who gave his life for God and country and I am sure he now enjoys the reward of the soldier priest.
After the war, these three friends and teammates from the Class of ’07 re-entered the story of Holy Cross. William O’Neil was so moved by Fr. Davitt’s story that he contributed the then princely sum of $5,000 as seed money for a memorial chapel. The chapel’s identity was soon expanded as a general memorial to all the College’s war dead whose names have been engraved on wooden tablets near the entrances. William Davitt heads the list.
Founder of the General Tire and Rubber Corporation, O’Neil remained a generous benefactor of Holy Cross. He received an honorary degree from alma mater in 1938—and, in 1959, O’Neil Hall was dedicated as a memorial to his family for their contributions to the College. When he died in 1960, his eulogist praised his “simple acceptance of his own identity with its relationship to other men and to God” that made him “no ordinary man.”
Fr. [later Monsignor] Connor, vicar general of the Diocese of Springfield, served both as director and president of the General Alumni Association and received an honorary degree in 1951. He was being honored, the citation read, “for his record on other fields than Fitton and for greater goals than touchdowns.”
Beyond the campus buildings associated with the Class of 1907, the names and spirit of Davitt and Connor live on in the football program. James Davitt ’13, himself a varsity athlete and later a World War I flying ace, established the Davitt Awards in 1959 in memory of his brother. They honor the outstanding backs and linemen on offense and defense. The Connor Award, which also dates to 1959, was set up by the Holy Cross Club of the Pioneer Valley. Chosen by vote of the varsity squad, the honoree is the player of whom his teammates are proudest.
In this centennial year of the Class of 1907, five players share the Davitt Award—Casey Gough ’07 and Ryan Maher ’08 as backs; Chris Nielsen ’07, John Marcus Pinard ’07 and Andrew Schoepfer ’07 as linemen. Gough and Nielsen served as captains and have twice received Davitt Awards. Besides their commitment to academics and football, several of this group have volunteered as Big Brothers; one co-chaired the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
Matt Fanning ’07 received the Connor Award. After extensive injuries and spinal fusion surgery robbed him of his first- and second-year seasons, he played injured during his third season. As a fourth-year student, Fanning started at wide receiver and on punt returns.
Receiving the award, he said, was “one of the best moments of my life and a humbling feeling” to be honored in the name of an alumnus whose life speaks to the spirit of Holy Cross.
Connor, Davitt, O’Neil: they lived the values they received on Mount St. James. And a new class of graduates has been challenged in their names to be lifelong Crusaders, with hearts as loyal and true and bold.
Rev. Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J. is a professor in the College’s history department.