“Sweaty,” the loud hockey player says. His barefoot counterpart sat there pensively for about 30 seconds until he settled on his conclusion, and agreed, “Yeah, I’ll go with sweaty.”
The two had just tried to pin one word to define their time at Notre Dame spent in Duncan Hall and had ended up explaining how a distant flickering star, a love of Fall Out Boy, and a few good pipes had led the two of them down to where they are now.
They sat there shirtless, on a Friday night. Josh Dempsey and Thom Behrens laid out the last four years of their life in an attempt to explain their friendship and how it had led them here, to sitting shirtless.
These are two of Duncan Hall’s RAs: Dempsey, a member of the club hockey team and employee of the athletic department; Behrens, a former president of the Swing Club, notorious for often roaming campus barefoot. They have gone to SYRs, SSLPs, and even the occasional Feve.
As they sat there shirtless, on a Friday night, on a couch, in a small RA’s room in Duncan Hall, Josh and Thom shared with me how their experience at Notre Dame revolves around so much more than studying, partying, and finding their place.
The key to the story is that Josh and Thom’s journey has to be told between the laughs and seemingly unrelated anecdotes. In order to understand Josh and Thom’s journey to becoming two of Duncan’s most beloved RAs, one must understand the bond Josh and Thom have.
Dempsey, a senior philosophy major from Buffalo, suggested that the best example of his and Behren’s relationship at work guiding them to becoming RAs manifested itself in the pair’s leadership of the award-winning 2014 Duncan Hall freshman orientation.
When the friends hosted the weekend last year, they did everything in the power to make it memorable.
“Me and Thom we feed off each other’s energy,” Dempsey says. “That weekend we just, for three to four days straight, fed off one another. Thom was screaming serenades, and I was going crazy.”
For the entirety of the weekend, Dempsey and Behrens wore too-tight shirts, and too-short shorts. Together, they danced on poles and made fools of themselves in order to show the new freshman that it was okay to be weird in college.
“I remember going to sleep Sunday night just absolutely exhausted but so fulfilled that we rocked it,” Dempsey says. “And then we ended up winning men’s best hall orientation, which was just icing on the cake.”
The experience had been an opportunity for Dempsey to realize a dream, inspired by his own orientation leader in 2012.
“He had the persona of having it together. He was like the guy and I remember from that time thinking: Man I want to be a leader like that in the dorm and so I had aspirations of leading freshman orientation and becoming an RA,” Dempsey says of another Josh, 2012 leader, Josh Whalen.
For Behrens, the script read differently.
Behrens’ early experience at Notre Dame was diametrically opposed to Dempsey’s excitement. He admits that while his friend loved the weekend as a freshman, he despised the orientation program.
“Josh saw the attraction to leadership in kind of the guy who was leading the people, making the jokes, kissing the babies, that sort of stuff,” the tall, bearded senior says.
But the greatest influence on a young Thom Behrens’ freshman year experience was not the energy surrounding Frosh-O.
It was Leo DiPero, RA, PLS major, and “all around chill guy.”
DiPero was the RA for Behrens as a freshman in 2012 living in 3A, the section he now takes care of. “He was kind of the first like older guy that took me up, and I really appreciated that because I had a really [expletive] freshman year,” says Behrens.
Because Behrens struggled during the transition to college, it has made him more aware of the difficulties suffered by others, especially freshman.
He said, “My motivation was I want to be able to help people who have [expletive] freshman years because college is a big time where you’re like discovering who you are, becoming your own person separate from your parents for the first time.”
Behrens felt a call to assume positions of leadership in orientation and in the dorm in order to be a resource for those who struggle like he did. He leads not with in your face section spirit, but by offering an open door.
Though they are so different, the duo has always shared an implicit understanding of each other; dating back to the night they first truly became friends. They stood outside, gazing at a flickering star. Dempsey suggested it might be a supernova. The conversation proceeded to include discussion of God, of Tolkien, of CS Lewis, of vinyl records, of everything to that star and back.
Eventually one night, Thom asked Josh who he’d say was his favorite band. For a moment, Dempsey wondered and settled on Fall Out Boy. Behrens then said, “Are we going to be roommates next year?”
The rest is history.
Behrens described how the dynamic developed as roommates and how the two friends operate. He says, “Josh is very much front end and I am very much like quieter and work on the back end.”
When the roommates would have friends over, the lights would always be on, music would be lightly playing (preferably vinyl), and Dempsey would greet guests at the door, offering hugs and high fives.
In the meantime, Behrens would be in the back, getting whatever was needed. The goal was for everyone who came to have a drink in his or her hand and feel welcome before they shut the door behind them.
Michael Moss, Duncan Hall’s current president, felt the Dempsey and Behrens’s warm welcome as a freshman. He lived down the hall from the two friends when they were sophomores.
“The way that I met a lot of Thom and Josh’s friends was that I accidentally attended one of their friend’s birthday parties,” Moss says.
Besides lights-on parties and an emphasis on conversation, Behrens and Dempsey have tried to strengthen friendships by throwing birthday parties with a twist.
Behrens and Dempsey worked hard to build a positive culture by initiating a tradition of truly honoring people on their birthdays.
On the day Michael Moss unknowingly attended such a celebration in Dempsey and Behrens’ room, he had no inclination that he did not belong there. It was not until the discussion began did he realize there was something different about the gathering. “It changed the way I thought about college life,” Moss says.
“We brought in this tradition of honoring people, which is something I had kind of grown up with,” says Behrens. “You take like half an hour during the birthday party where you cut the music, let people get a drink, and you all spend time like honestly and really heartfelt talking about why you really appreciate and love the person.”
Dempsey adopted the idea quickly and he says, “…You have meaningful discussion and make that person feel honored and valuable on this particular day that is theirs.”
Even when Dempsey was abroad last semester, the tradition continued. He typed up his message to Behrens and asked a friend to read it at the celebration.
“Nothing builds friendships like that,” Behrens says.
Though Dempsey and Behrens have developed such a special dynamic relationship, they are certainly not joined at the hip. Each has his quirks and activities. Thom is quite spiritual and goes barefoot most days in order to mediate on the sanctity of life on God’s earth. He is a computer science major with a knack for repairing old flip-flops with a spare piece of cardboard.
Josh spends a large chunk of his time in the hockey rink, either playing or working for the Media Relations Department. He will spend hours talking to you about the merits of Buffalo Sabre hockey, moral philosophy and the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Nhat Nguyen, Duncan Hall’s rector, has worked extensively with both Dempsey and Behrens in their hall staff roles. Nguyen offered an analysis of Behrens and Dempsey’s relationship.
“They’re like the Yin and Yang some would say. It’s hard to find good friends like that, anticipating your best man, its something special,” he says.
With in their differences, Dempsey and Behrens grow closer together. Often, one will bring the other into their other group of friends. Behrens said it’s not about showing his one cool friend Josh. He said when he introduces Josh he wants to say, “Check out this awesome dynamic that I’ve created in my life, and this is a really big part of me. It’s a way to get to know me through understanding the other person in this awesome relationship I have.”
Dempsey says, “We’re just both very in tune with each other’s strengths and weaknesses to the point where we can identify things going on in each other’s lives and be there for one another in very trying times.”
In the transition to college, great friends are often left behind thousands of miles away, and it can be tough without that face-to-face contact.
“And that has been one of the most important aspects of my friendship with Thom is always having this kind of counterpart and a rock to go to with anything that’s going on in my life,” he says.
Now, Dempsey and Behrens are separated only by a shared ceiling-floor, and are appreciative for the opportunity to fulfill their plans conceived freshman year.
“That dream that was kind of an idea in our head, realizing that. It’s been good,” Dempsey says.
Behrens decided the best way to describe he and Josh was with a cheap joke. He says, “You know the two old guys on the Muppets. We’ve been talking about that for years.”
Immediately, he impersonated the characters and says, “You know why we call that one the medium joke, because it’s not rare and it’s not very well done.”
Though he had heard it a thousand times, Josh Dempsey broke out into laughter.
It happened for no other reason than because here he was sitting here, shirtless, on a Friday night, on a couch, in a small RA’s room in Duncan Hall, next to the person who understands him most in the world, his best friend.