Meet the man who takes care of 'The Rock'

Sylvester Cashen has been tending to Knute Rocke's grave for years. Now 85, he battles a balky back, but still meticulously manicures the area around "The Rock." Courtesy Marty Smith

At Highland Cemetery in South Bend, Indiana, the grass is quite literally greener on the far side the hill. This is not trite and it is not hyperbole. Two days a week for more than two decades, Sylvester Cashen has dedicated his life to ensuring that this grass is worthy of its roots.

He wants no fanfare and doesn’t seek recognition, but when asked he does appreciate the opportunity to share his reasoning for painstakingly caring for one particular gravesite.

Cashen, like most folks around South Bend, appreciates all the things Knute Rockne was and is and will forever be for the University of Notre Dame: Respect. Tradition. Passion. Institution.

So he writes weekly thank you notes, penned in chlorophyll.

“I look up before I leave,” he told me, cadence slow and thoughtful. “I look up at the sky and say, ‘I hope you like what I’ve done.’ I always say goodbye to him. I talk to him while I’m kneeling, working around the gravestone, working on the flowers. I tell him who Notre Dame is playing. In my own mind, he answers me back.

“I told him the time that Charlie Weis was the coach, they were going to lose bad that year. And I was talking to him. And he was listening to me. I thought maybe people would think I was nuts. But truthfully, I did talk to him. I never got to meet the man. I wish I could’ve. But I feel like I know him.”

Make a man’s bed, you learn a lot about him.

Cashen is 85 now. His back is sore but his pride is strong. So each week, Thursday or Friday, sometimes both, he makes his way to Highland to spiffy-up Rockne’s resting place. It hasn’t been as easy this past year. He needs more breaks than he used to.

“My back really aches,” he said. “It’s in my spine. I just stop and rest for a while, until it passes. But I’ll tell you this, young man, I never left until I completed the task.”

Sometimes it takes three or four hours. Cashen is meticulous. He mows grass. Wacks weeds. Plants flowers purchased with his own money. The other guys just brazenly cut, much to Cashen’s chagrin. He cures.

He once squared-off the gravesite’s boundary with wooden porch stakes to ensure no unwelcome encroachment.

“I do it my way,” he said sternly. “I guess I’m like Frank Sinatra that way, ya know?”

His in-laws and wife of 35 years, Mara, are here, too, buried 100 feet away from Rockne. Cashen figured if he was caring for blood he should care for The Rock, too. That’s what his mother-in-law called the coach, “The Rock.”

They were neighbors, lived just around the corner from Coach Rockne on Notre Dame Avenue in a big white house. When they moved, Cashen explained, the house was sold to Opus Dei, an outfit out of Chicago, before ultimately being acquired by the university for student housing.

“He would be over at their house sometimes, because they had a big rec room in the basement,” Cashen said. “They’d have a beer once in a while.”

The cemetery owners provide a push mower. The blade is sharp and the motor is strong. Cashen and his aching back appreciate that she almost always cranks with a single pull. The folks who run the cemetery gas her up and drop her off, then pick her up when Cashen’s job is complete. They sweep up in her wake, too.

And they check on Cashen when it’s especially hot. They care for him like he cares for the grass.

In thanks, he occasionally takes them a dozen doughnuts. At Christmastime he might hand them a cash thank you.

Visitors appreciate his craft, too, he said. They tell him often how nice everything looks. They’ll compliment the Rockne memorial as they snap photos at what they believe to be his resting place.

It’s not. And when Cashen points to the right, towards the big pine tree just over the hill, the visitors stare at him, perplexed.

“People come by the day before games and see me working, and ask who I am and what I’m doing,” Cashen said. “They compliment the beautiful job I’ve done. I show them where his grave is, and they stand and say prayers.

“And I just walk off, leave them there with him.

“I know what a special moment it is. I call Rockne the Father of the Coaches. Of all the coaches Notre Dame had, he’s the top.”