Brady Stiller, recently named valedictorian at the University of Notre Dame for the class of 2020, describes his journey to where he is today as “fortuitous."
As humble as Stiller is, it is clear that the main reason for his success is not good fortune, but extremely hard work, dedication and talent. It is undeniable however, that there is a sense of serendipity about the circumstances around his time in London, and his thesis on G.K. Chesterton.
"I’d applied to the London program before I’d taken a Chesterton course, before I’d even known who Chesterton was,” says Stiller.
Following in Chesterton's footsteps
Stiller had just begun studying David Fagerberg’s Chesterton and Catholicism course when he found out that he had been accepted to the London Program. Although still in the early stages of his studies on Chesterton, Stiller’s appreciation for the author’s work grew quickly.
“Just a few classes in, I knew I’d found my favorite author for life,” reflects Stiller.
This is not unusual for fans of Chesterton, who find themselves quickly enamored by the writer’s unique style and his ability to speak with wit and clarity on almost any subject. Armed with this new-found appreciation, Stiller decided to make it a priority in England to follow Chesterton’s footsteps. Starting locally, he visited sites such bustling Fleet Street, where Chesterton worked as a journalist, and then further afield to the author’s tranquil home town of Beaconsfield.
“Chesterton was a human being, but a human being fully alive,” says Stiller. “To follow in the footsteps of any big figure is important, but I get the sense that it meant all the more for a figure like this.”
One of the key sites that Stiller knew he wanted to visit was a Chesterton archive situated in Oxford. The collection, compiled by Aidan Mackey over decades, contains books, personal effects, art and other items related to Chesterton. With help from staff at the London Global Gateway, Stiller managed to facilitate a visit to the archive near the end of the semester. While leafing through Chesterton’s doodle-inscribed school books, Stiller never envisioned that he’d be returning to visit the archive a year later, this time in its new home at the London Global Gateway.
An inspiring return to the Chesterton Collection
During the time of Stiller’s visit to Oxford, the collection was looking for a new home. With a central location and Notre Dame’s historical ties with Chesterton, the Notre Dame London Global Gateway was a perfect candidate for relocation. In another strange twist of fate, Stiller’s thesis on Chesterton led him to apply for funding to be the first researcher to use the materials in their new home, in his old school building.
“I know some Chesterton scholars and fans who are aware that Notre Dame got this archive, and they are awaiting the grand opening,” says Stiller. “To think that I didn’t even have to wait for that is incredible.”
Although the material was still in boxes at the time that Stiller returned, the staff helped him to unearth the resources he needed for his research, and much more.
“I found more things that I wasn't looking for that ended up contributing so much to my argument,” reflects Stiller.
The diversity of material in the collection reflects the multi-faceted nature of Chesterton’s work. A particularly unique feature is the quantity of Chesterton’s design and illustration it contains. One representation of this is a number of original characters from a toy theater that Chesterton designed and accompanying notes that the author had made. The fact that Stiller spent a week studying these pieces meant that they played a stronger role in shaping his eventual argument.
“I think the toy theater is the star item from this archive," says Stiller. “To be able to incorporate that into my thesis is special."
Stiller found that the toy theater pieces symbolized so much of Chesterton’s world views. Using the accompanying articles, clippings and journal entries, he was able to strengthen his arguments on paradox, romance, and seeing life as a story.
“There were these perfect quotes that filled in gaps, making my thesis richer and my argument more complete,” says Stiller.
The staff in London hope that Stiller’s passion for learning more about Chesterton will raise awareness of the collection’s move to Notre Dame. Charlotte Parkyn, director of academic engagement, worked with Stiller to facilitate his research trip.
“Brady’s passion for learning more about Chesterton was clearly evident during his semester abroad in London,” says Parkyn. “We hope his research will inspire other members of the Notre Dame community and beyond to discover more about the Chesterton Collection.”
Becoming part of an international community
Stiller’s return to London had a profound effect on his thesis, but it was his decision to study in London in the first place that led to this opportunity. Having never left the U.S before his time in London, Stiller’s eyes were opened to the wealth of opportunity in the world, and how he could fit into that bigger picture.
“I saw more of the world in four months than most people see in a few years,” says Stiller. “It opened my world.”
Stiller was not content to just visit countries and move on, and knew that part of being a global citizen meant giving back.
“More than just going around the world and taking it in as a tourist, it was a chance to be a global citizen, to see how I can give back to the communities that I’m visiting,” says Stiller.
There is certainly no shortage of examples of how Stiller made efforts to give back to the communities he visited. He was involved with a college Catholic community, Newman House, that organized social outreach and volunteering opportunities. He also took part in an internship at St. Thomas More School, allowing him to integrate into London life and culture rather than experiencing it as a tourist.
“The internship was a chance to become a part of a local community in London,” says Stiller. “To get to know people personally, that was important.”
Stiller, like many Notre Dame students, saw that studying abroad was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was an opportunity not simply to see another country, but to experience its people, culture, and community. Stiller’s success in doing that is apparent when he talks about the influence international education has had on his life.
“Before traveling to these places, I just had an impression of what England was like or what Italy was like,” says Stiller. “Now, I have faces and names and friends.”
The beginning of an impressive academic career
Stiller’s work with the collection and his time in London was as important for Notre Dame as it was for him. Rev. James M. Lies C.S.C, director for Catholic Initiatives at the London Global Gateway, was excited when he learned that Stiller was returning for a research trip.
“We in London all take such delight in the fact that the first person to engage the collection, even before we shelved it, was Brady!” says Fr. Lies. At the time, we had no idea that he would be selected as valedictorian, but it delights us all the more that he has been. His senior thesis on Chesterton is just the beginning of what I imagine will be a very impressive academic career.”
On being named valedictorian, Stiller is both characteristically humble and ready to seize the opportunity that has presented itself.
“It doesn't take away from the achievements of my classmates, all that they are and all that they have done has constantly impressed me,” states Stiller. “In these extraordinary times, I find myself ready to give a message of hope to my classmates and I’m humbled by the opportunity to serve that role.”
Stiller is still considering his options for his future, including applying to the Jesuit Novitiate. One thing that is certain however, is that his senior thesis on Chesterton does not mark the end of his work on the author.