About Joseph A. LaFortune
Mr. Joseph A. LaFortune was born June 3, 1894, in South Bend, Indiana. Raised in a neighborhood just south of campus, he left school after completing the seventh grade to help financially support his family. His first job was with the South Bend Electric Company.
After discussions with friends, LaFortune realized that he would need advanced education in order to have a successful professional career. Through the advice of a co-worker, LaFortune visited the University of Notre Dame and met with a Holy Cross priest to discuss his desire to participate in an academic program which would prepare him for a professional career in advertising. Despite his lack of financial resources, the Holy Cross priests admitted him to the University with the understanding that he would work for his education. From 1915-1916, LaFortune completed a specially created academic program consisting of courses in advertising and commerce. In addition to coursework and student employment, LaFortune took advantage of campus life, participating in intramural basketball and baseball.
In the summer of 1916, LaFortune left Notre Dame and accepted an accounting position with Standard Oil Company of Indiana. Within a year, LaFortune enlisted in the Naval Air Corps. Although not deployed overseas, LaFortune witnessed a number of soldiers returning to the United States with injuries, and soon thereafter he moved to Michigan to work for the American Red Cross. During his time in the Red Cross, LaFortune learned of opportunities in the oil industry. As World War I came to an end, LaFortune traveled to Oklahoma in 1919 in search of a career.
Shortly after arriving in Tulsa, LaFortune found employment as an advertising salesman for the Tulsa Daily World newspaper. Shortly thereafter, LaFortune returned to South Bend to marry Miss Gertrude Tremel, whom he had been courting since his days at Notre Dame. On April 30, 1920, they married and traveled to Tulsa to start a life together.
In 1923, LaFortune began soliciting oil companies for advertising positions. Warren Petroleum Company offered him the opportunity to join the firm as a writer. William K. Warren, founder of the company, wanted LaFortune to join his company full-time. LaFortune, seeking an opportunity, negotiated an agreement whereby he would have the ability to purchase stock in Warren’s company if his performance was deemed satisfactory. Warren agreed, and after proving himself in only twelve months, LaFortune secured a loan from Warren and purchased five percent of the company’s stock.
LaFortune’s talents as a writer created opportunities for advancement with the company. In 1929, he was named Vice President of Warren Petroluem Company, a position he would continue to hold throughout his thirty-year tenure at the company. During his time with Warren, LaFortune became known nationally as a leader in the oil industry. He was named president of the National Gasoline Association of America, and in 1953, he retired from Warren to accept a position as deputy director of the Petroleum Administration for Defense in Washington, DC.
In addition to LaFortune’s professional career, his contributions to the University of Notre Dame were numerous.
In 1941, LaFortune was appointed to the Board of Lay Trustees by Rev. Hugh O’Donnell, C.S.C., and in 1960 he was appointed Chairman. In 1967, the Board of Lay Trustees was abolished, and LaFortune was named to the first newly created Board of Trustees, which was composed of both clergy and laity. When LaFortune stepped down from the Board in 1971, he was honored with the title of Honorary Trustee for Life.
Although LaFortune’s original curriculum in 1915-16 did not result in a diploma, he was presented an honorary degree at the 104th Commencement in 1949.
Mr. LaFortune’s service to the University was remarkable, and his benefactions were legendary. In 1946, LaFortune made his first significant contribution to the University with a $100,000 donation as a thank you gift for the opportunity Notre Dame provided him with his education. Although an unrestricted gift, LaFortune suggested that the funds be used to establish a campus information building or bus station. His next gift came after the death of Father O’Donnell. LaFortune commissioned an oil painting of the fourteenth President of the University, which can be found to this day on the second floor of the Main Building.
Perhaps the most visible gifts of LaFortune were presented during the administration of Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, who assumed leadership of Notre Dame in the early 1950’s. At the time, Notre Dame was one of the few universities which did not have a student union or student center for its students. As academic instruction was the focus of the University, the astonishing cost of constructing a student center would not rise to a high enough level of importance for the University to fund. Committed to addressing the need for student social space, LaFortune and Hesburgh considered many alternatives to constructing a new building. One building in particular was identified as a potential home for a student center. The 12th oldest building on campus, built in 1883, the Science Hall’s usefulness was declining, particularly with the construction of the Nieuwland Science Hall in 1952. Architects estimated the cost of renovating the building at $135,000, and LaFortune agreed to donate the funds to renovate the building into Notre Dame’s first student center. LaFortune Student Center opened in 1953 and was officially dedicated at the Sophomore Cotillion in November of that year.
One year later, LaFortune became aware that the basement of the building was left untouched during the renovation. He challenged students by matching any funds they raised to renovate the basement. This trend of matching student funds continued as LaFortune regularly visited the Student Center to speak with students and ensure that the building met their needs. As Rev. James E. Norton, C.S.C., Vice President for Student Affairs once stated:
“I can tell you that there is no gift at Notre Dame so wonderfully appreciated and enjoyed by so many people as the LaFortune Student Center.”
LaFortune Student Center continued to grow, even after the death of Mr. LaFortune in 1975. In 1977, LaFortune’s family donated $350,000, which coupled with a $100,000 bequest from LaFortune’s will provided funding for another renovation of the Student Center. In 1986, LaFortune’s family stepped forward with a gift to fund another expansion of the Student Center which included the addition of the east wing.
Joseph and Gertrude LaFortune’s generosity to the University of Notre Dame continues to be visible years later, as LaFortune Student Center has become the most visited building on Notre Dame’s campus. Were it not for the loyalty to his alma mater, LaFortune Student Center would not be what it is today.
- Notre Dame Archives
- The Gentleman: The Life of Joseph A. LaFortune, Published for the Oklahoma Heritage Association by Western Heritage Books, Inc. (1979) Note: some portions of the book available as a podcast on iTunes (search "joseph lafortune")