John Affleck-Graves, executive vice president, arrived in Chicago from South Africa with his wife and two young daughters in August 1986, when rules related to apartheid limited travelers to carrying everything they owned in two suitcases apiece.
Rather than make the exhausted family wait for an uncertain connecting flight to South Bend, the chair of the Finance Department that hired Affleck-Graves rented a van and drove to Chicago to pick them up. That former chair, Howard Lanser, then temporarily moved his mother out of her home so the Affleck-Graves family would have a place to stay.
“It didn’t take me five hours to figure out that Notre Dame was a special place, different from every other university,” Affleck-Graves said.
A year earlier, Affleck-Graves had never heard of Notre Dame. He was teaching finance at his alma mater, the University of Cape Town, when he met a Notre Dame professor teaching in South Africa. The colleague invited Affleck-Graves to present a research paper at a conference in South Bend. During the one-day trip, he met other faculty and learned about the department, but he was not looking for a job.
But when Lanser called at the end of 1985 to make an offer, Affleck-Graves did not hesitate. He said there seemed little hope at the time that future leader Nelson Mandela would ever get out of prison.
“It was at that time a violent society, in many ways a hopeless society,” Affleck-Graves said. “Who knew that they would release Mandela and that he would be such a wonderful man of peace? At that time, you couldn’t even mention Mandela’s name or you could go to jail. I thought we were going to go through a 30-year war like Zimbabwe went through.”
He said he’d considered moving to Australia but was surprised to get an offer from Notre Dame. “It was an easy decision,” he said. “I also had this big safety net. I could go back to Cape Town if it didn’t work out, so it wasn’t as risky as people think.”
Affleck-Graves had three sisters and a mother in South Africa then. Only one sister still lives there today. He went home every year for 15 years while his mother lived — and has returned only once since then.
“The death of Mandela brings back a lot of those memories, a lot of frustration over how long it took for changes to come,” he said. “I think white South Africans have a mix of feeling great joy that a leader of that ability came out of what he had to endure. And then a sense of guilt of how we had opportunities and we prospered from a system that was just evil. It does gnaw at you.”
He said leaving was harder on his wife, Rita, whose visa restricted her from working in their adopted country. Rita raised the girls — both of whom graduated from Notre Dame — and grew to love South Bend. She became the first in the family to become an American citizen.
“Unless you’ve lived in a society that is that violent, you don’t realize the impact it has on your life,” he said. “Violence is insidious, because on a day-to-day basis, you actually grow to accept it. For us, South Bend was such a peaceful community, you just let out a breath of air.”
Still, those first years involved plenty of uncertainty, Affleck-Graves said. Then-Dean Frank Reilly told the new professor not to buy a home or get too entrenched here because he would not likely get tenure. “I went home and told my wife I had to work really hard,” he said.
Affleck-Graves said he “drifted” into administration over the years, first as chair of the Finance Department and then as vice president and associate provost in 2001. He became the University’s first lay executive vice president in 2004, responsible for an annual operating budget of more than a billion dollars and an endowment now more than $8 billion. He also oversees human resources activities for more than 5,000 employees and a construction program averaging about $100 million per year.
He still teaches a class in his specialty, strategic finance and valuation, to graduate students. And while he came from a world of numbers, Affleck-Graves said the main thing he’s learned over the years is to value the people with whom he works.
“What surprised me coming from the faculty side, when I look throughout my division, it’s the dedication of people to the University,” he said. “For almost everyone who works at Notre Dame, this is more than just a job.”
This story was originally published in NDWorks.