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Daniel Ruettiger, 89, father of Notre Dame legend ‘Rudy’

Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger attends Notre Dame pep rally 2005. | AP

Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger attends a Notre Dame pep rally in 2005. | AP

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Updated: July 20, 2011 4:39PM

Daniel Ruettiger drilled old-fashioned lessons into his 14 kids at the L-shaped wooden table he crafted so they could all eat dinner together in their Joliet home.

He told them to finish whatever they started.

Take one step at a time to achieve a goal.

Don’t tell me what you can’t do — just get it done.

And whatever you give, you’ll get back — “two times.”

He worked two full-time jobs (and sometimes a third, part-time one) to raise his children, one of whom grew up to be the title character in “Rudy,” the feel-good sports movie about an undersized, underdog kid’s quest to play football for Notre Dame.

Mr. Ruettiger died last month at his retirement home in Montello, Wis. He was 89.

At one point in the film, Mr. Ruettiger, portrayed by Ned Beatty, tells his son Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, played by Sean Astin: “Chasing [your] stupid dream causes nothing but you — and everyone around you — heartache.”

But in reality, “Dad was our biggest fan,” said his son, Tim.

Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger agrees. The filmmakers took some liberties, he said, using that scene with Mr. Beatty to symbolize every pessimistic message “Rudy” had ever received about downsizing his goals.

What Mr. Ruettiger actually told him, Rudy said, was: “ ‘You can’t just go to Notre Dame and play football — you gotta get the grades. Are you willing to do that? Son, you gotta take the proper steps.’. . . .He let me go, and if I fell, he was there to help.”

Mr. Ruettiger was born in Joliet. His family had a 140-acre dairy farm on Maple Road, but during the Depression they lost all but five acres.

Mr. Ruettiger had to get up at 5 a.m. to milk the cows before he went off to Joliet Catholic Academy, where he played football.

After high school, he enlisted in the service, where he had a mission so dangerous, it was immortalized in the Randall Jarrell poem, “The Death of The Ball Turret Gunner.” The young airman had to curl up in a fetal position in a machine gun-armed bubble suspended below a B-17. It was so cramped he couldn’t wear a parachute. Isolated from his crewmates, exposed to enemy fire, he flew 22 missions in France, Tunisia, and Italy, and was awarded 10 military honors, according to his sons Mark and Mick.

Two things kept him going, he told his kids: prayer, and thoughts of Betty Mandella, the beauty waiting for him back home. They married and were together 66 years until his death.

In Italy he received Communion from Padre Pio, a priest renowned for his mysticism. “He felt he was just radiating with holiness,” said Tim. Padre Pio would later be named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

Back in Joliet after the war, the children started to arrive. For 18 years, there was always a new baby in the Ruettiger house. They had seven boys and seven girls.

Mr. Ruettiger became a supervisor at Union Oil. He worked nights at the refinery and did construction in the daytime. He also did rehab jobs on the side.

He and Betty “never argued in front of us kids,” said Rudy, now a motivational speaker. “They were united.”

He would tell their children, “Your mother is the best in the world. Ain’t she beautiful,” their son Mick wrote in his eulogy.

The holidays were rollicking. “Christmases were phenomenal,” said Tim. “I don’t know how they did what they did, but there were toys galore.” At Halloween, “We’d just get on our bikes and go forever.”

Their house sat on two acres next to a big lot where the neighborhood kids came to play baseball.

A fun night was cramming the family into the Buick station wagon for a night at the Hill-Top Drive-In, Mick said. Mr. Ruettiger would hit the speed bump and say “weeee!” The kids would all laugh.

“You knew when he was ticked and you knew when he was happy,” Tim said. The Ruettigers had a little wooden doghouse that hung above the telephone. Each of the kids had a little dog with their name on it. “If you’re in trouble, your name goes in the doghouse — and if your name’s on there, you get a crack when he got home,” Tim said. (The only ones who seemed to wind up in the doghouse were the boys.)

Despite his work schedule, he made it to all their ball games. “You always could look in the stands and see dad,” Tim said. “The only thing he would say is ‘Good job,’ not ‘You shoulda done this or you shoulda done that.’ Just ‘you played hard.’ ”

At church the Ruettigers took up more than a pew. At home they said the rosary. With 14 kids, they could only finish a decade or so before the little ones started to fuss.

Mr. Ruettiger also donated his time to renovate Providence Catholic High in New Lenox.

The only time the kids remember him dissembling was when he got a little thrill playing the nickel slots in Las Vegas or at the Ho-Chunk casino. If it was a good day, they might hear, “Don’t tell your mother I won.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Ruettiger also is survived by his daughters, Jean Ann Voelker, Mary Eileen Brockup, Carol Surges, Rosemarie Haiduke, Betsy Gallo, Rita Hasanaj, and Norma Berman; his other sons, Francis, John, and Bernie; 49 grandchildren; and 27 great-grandchildren — “and counting,” Francis said.

Mr. Ruettiger was buried last month with his little holy statue of Padre Pio beside him.

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