MICHIGAN CITY – When Notre Dame takes on Clemson in a national semifinal game Saturday afternoon, fans across the country will be cheering for the Irish, but perhaps none more fervently than a Michigan City woman.
Esther “Essie” Epstein has had two great loves in her life, and they fit together seamlessly.
She met Frank Epstein in 1954 and they were married two years later, a marriage that ended just before their 50th anniversary when Frank passed away in 2005.
An even longer love affair has been with Notre Dame and its football team, so you know she will be tuned in Saturday.
“There’s no way I won’t be watching,” Essie said. “I watch all the Notre Dame games, and a lot of other games. I’m just a big college football fan.”
The license plate on her car reads “1 UND” and though she’s now 84, she still considers herself the No. 1 fan of the Fighting Irish.
“I lived in South Bend and grew up with Notre Dame,” the former Esther Gendel said. “My parents owned a cafe and the Notre Dame band would come and play over there. I’ve always been a fan.”
Fortunately for Frank Epstein, the Chicago native received a scholarship to play for the Irish and came to South Bend after graduating from Senn High School in 1954.
Essie said he had another thing going for him – he was Jewish. “There weren’t a lot of Jewish boys at Notre Dame back then.”
They met after she picked up some football player friends at the Philadelphia Cafe to give them a ride home.
“I asked them where Frank Epstein lived. My sister had said there was a Jewish guy who hung out at the Philadelphia and he was really good looking.”
Never a shy woman, she called him up, introduced herself “and I said some friends had told me about him. I was a BS’er just like him,” she said with a laugh.
They started dating and she had one advantage over some of the other girls – a car.
“There were no cars allowed for students unless they commuted or lived off campus,” Essie said. “I had a Lincoln convertible.”
They started dating – “He called me quite a bit,” she said – but the courtship was interrupted when Frank joined the Marines during the Korean War, before returning to South Bend.
That put him in the Irish history books – the only gridder who played with three Heisman trophy winners.
He played defensive tackle under Coach Frank Leahy with Heisman winners Leon Hart and Johnny Lattner in 1949 and 1950, before his enlistment. After serving as a Marine drill sergeant for two years, he returned to ND, and the football field. He played in 1955 and 1956 under Coach Terry Brennan, and was a teammate of “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung, before being sidelined by a pinched nerve.
His wife recalls the story of his first day of practice when Epstein, a running back in high school, finished last among the backs in the 100-yard dash, and Coach Frank Leahy asked if he was injured. After watching him run again, and asking again if he was hurt, Leahy told his defensive coach he had found him a new lineman.
Frank and Esther were married on March 18, 1956, and shortly afterwards moved to Michigan City, into a home at 2043 Lake Shore Drive in Long Beach, where they raised a daughter, Jody Lee; and two sons, Jim and “Buckeye.”
“He was from Chicago and I was from South Bend, so we wanted a place somewhere in between,” Essie said. “Michigan City was about halfway, and it had those beaches. We fell in love with the place.”
So much so that when her husband died, rather than go live with her son in Texas, she decided to remain in the area where she still had several friends from “back when.”
She had a home in Beachwalk before it got too big for her, and now lives in an apartment in the area.
Prior to Frank’s death, the couple were staples at Irish home football games, sitting together in ND Monogram Section 9, Row 60, seats 12 and 13.
“We went to just about every home game for over 30 years,” Essie said. “We sat way up against the concrete wall. It was a great view, and we would meet up with his old buddies from school, including Paul Hornung.”
Since her husband’s death, she’s gone to “a few games,” but “it’s just not the same.”
Frank’s time at Notre Dame led to a number of memorable friendships that lasted through the years.
Hornung – who Essie calls a “close friend” – helped paint their first house in South Bend; while their son went to college with Johnny Lattner’s daughter.
Frank also had another well-known classmate during his first stint at ND, Essie recalls.
“A get a phone call one day, ask who it is and he says, ‘It’s Regis Philbin.’ I said, ‘Hold on there, speak a little bit more because I can tell by the voice.’ And sure enough it was him. He always called Frank ‘The Checker’ because he was a hall monitor and had to check on Regis and the other guys to make sure they were in their rooms.”
Frank and Esther banked with Dick Rosenthal, former president of St. Joseph Bank and Trust Co. before becoming athletic director at Notre Dame; and were staples at Coach George Kelly’s home after games in South Bend, where they got to know “one of the funniest ND football players ever” – Zygmount Czarobski or “just plain Ziggy.”
Along with football, Essie recalls watching many handball games in South Bend. Her husband was “by far the greatest handball player ever at Notre Dame,’’ according to Jerry Groom, All American and captain of the 1950 football team. “He played alongside Tom Murphy and many other Fathers.”
In later years, Frank became a 25-year veteran of the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous Dunes Fellowship House, and was also an avid beachcomber. Essie said they “truly enjoyed spending their summers on the beaches of Lake Michigan” or boating on the big lake.
They also enjoyed dancing – “Frank was a great dancer, especially the jitterbug. He showed me his way and I was able to keep up with him,” she said. And they did a lot of traveling, including Europe and the Bahamas.
“He was my life,” she said, “and it was a nice life.”
While her husband is gone, she has plenty of memorabilia from Notre Dame to keep his memory fresh.
“I’ve got Notre Dame stuff all over the house,” she said. “I even got the bleacher seats we sat in all those years,” purchased, according to son Jim, when the stadium was undergoing renovation.
“There are pictures of all the top stars, trophies, footballs, letters from coaches … It’s like a museum here.”
Along with the Irish mementoes is a 65-inch TV where she’ll be watching Saturday’s game.
“I certainly hope they win,” Essie said. She doesn’t pick scores, but son Jim expects a 31-24 victory.
“I disliked that coach [Brian Kelly] a little in the beginning,” she said. “I didn’t think he was strong enough or tough enough in dealing with the players.
“Now Frank Leahy was one tough coach. One time he was talking to Frank and telling him he needed to put out a little more effort. He said if he couldn’t, there was always the South Shore train to take him back home.
“I guess things are a little bit different today,” she added.
And while the Irish are 13-point underdogs to Clemson, she thinks they can they pull off the upset.
“Darn right,” Essie says without hesitation.
Notre Dame faces Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, a national semifinal game, at 3 p.m. Saturday on ESPN. More coverage in Sports.