When Michael Carroll was a month from graduating high school, his father — a subway alumni who taught his family to love Notre Dame — passed away suddenly. Carroll was thrust into a series of unexpected roles for his four younger siblings.
He became a father figure for his much younger brother, attending his football games while living at home during law school. He supported his three sisters with advice or help when his mother went back to work. As his own entrepreneurial career took off in Houston, he became the uncle who spoiled nieces and nephews, buying them Christmas gifts of not only musical instruments but also lessons to start a Carroll Clan band.
A Texas-sized personality, Carroll managed it all with dazzling style by following three mantras: Always show up, bring the fun and find your spiritual center.
Carroll did just that by realizing a lifelong dream of attending Notre Dame as an Executive MBA student. In a leadership paper during his first week of class in 2020, he vowed to “show up” to help his classmates reach their goals.
Full of life, he tragically passed away last summer at the same age as his father, 46, from a cardiac event while on vacation in Colorado. His brokenhearted classmates lifted those words from his life when they created a scholarship in his remarkable spirit. When some asked the rest to repay Carroll in kind, the memorial fund took off with extraordinary speed.
The Carroll clan were the kind of Notre Dame fans that had a room full of relics and gear for the growing kids. His class cohort took note of a Facebook post showing Carroll in his Notre Dame sweater in the 1970s. His father took Michael and younger brother Tim to a game or two every year, which the Irish Catholic family considered a pilgrimage to the holy land.
“Notre Dame was sort of the heart and soul,” said Kelly Carroll Hill, one of the three sisters. “The first thing to know about our dad was the love of Notre Dame, and so when he passed away, we carried that on.”
Carroll’s siblings described him as a natural leader and showman. They recalled the time the star of Bye Bye Birdie couldn’t go onstage in eighth grade, so Carroll stepped in. “They fed him the lines backstage and he came out and nailed it, stealing the show,” said Brady Carroll Peters. “But his spotlight was not intrusive or selfish. It was, ‘You’re coming along with me.’ He made you feel involved.”
Besides Tim’s football games, he attended Blair’s swim meets, Kelly’s volleyball games and Brady’s horse shows. When Kelly applied to TCU, he called his alma mater and asked admissions to consider her recent diagnosis of a learning disability more than her test scores. He walked all three sisters down the aisle. In his eulogy, Tim called his brother his best friend.
“He was a support system,” Brady said. “It was different for each of us because of our ages and points in our life. His biggest gift was meeting people on their level.”
In his professional life, Carroll practiced law only a few years before following his entrepreneurial spirit into commercial real estate. He joined Riverway Properties as president and general counsel and later co-founded Riverway Capital Partners, a real estate investment company, and Foxgate Capital, a private equity firm. He co-founded an online sports business with his brother-in-law to combine his love of business with college football. He joined with friends to create Vanitas Entertainment and produced several independent films.
Kelly said the film production company wasn’t random. Two of Michael’s friends had always wanted to be in the movie business. “He had friends with a passion and he wanted to make that a reality,” she said. “He wanted people to achieve great things. I think he liked improving somebody else’s position more than he did improving his own, which indirectly made him very successful.”
His generosity could manifest as time or money, from a travel lacrosse tournament with one sister’s family to paying for the open bar at another’s wedding or co-signing his brother’s college loans.
When Carroll decided to apply to the Notre Dame Executive MBA program in South Bend, he felt things had come full circle and was determined to bring his family along. He couldn’t believe he’d finally arrived, finding the spiritual center of his mother’s counsel. And that spirit rubbed off on his classmates.
Each cohort of about 50 students from around the country meets on campus once a month for three days of classes in addition to online work. They split into teams of six or seven for group discussions and projects during the two-year program.
Emily Havelka said she was fortunate to be on the same team as Carroll, who organized shared AirBnB’s and rental cars to promote cohesion. “Sometimes we had to wake him up, but he would be singing every song on the radio when we passed the Dome,” Havelka said. “He always turned it into something fun. He made it feel like it was a privilege and not like it was work.”
Havelka echoed Carroll’s siblings about his generosity. He would buy the team matching jerseys, organize pizza outings, send photos and check in if someone was sick. She said he made it clear he wanted to “cultivate whatever group he was in and make sure you felt included.”
An ambitious list-maker, Carroll wrote in a paper that his goals revolved around unlocking the potential he saw in others. “There is no greater compliment in business than when one of my employees has the courage to go out on their own,” he wrote.
“Michael was kind of a larger-than-life persona,” said Danny Hill, a classmate who helped kick off the memorial fund. “You don’t see too many cowboy hats walking around in South Bend, Indiana. In the program, we all bond as a team, but nobody more than Michael. I think he reached out to all 50 people in the class and really got to know them well.”
Months before he died, Carroll told Hill about his lifelong passion for the University on their way to class, lamenting that it was unfortunate everyone could not afford their experience. Hill remembered that conversation after Carroll’s death and thought a scholarship for that purpose would be the perfect way to honor him.
Michael Brach, then-director of the Executive MBA program, said he wasn’t surprised that Carroll’s classmates started this fundraising effort. Normally, these kinds of funds raise about $20,000. But Brach, who awarded Carroll a posthumous degree, said his magnetism, gregarious personality and deep connections inspired a whole different level of response. So far, the fund has raised more than $350,000.
The Carroll family was astonished that in just 15 months the Notre Dame community came to appreciate their brother like they do. The siblings said they felt “embraced” by support at an August memorial event and in the months since, finding a silver lining to their tragedy.
“We don’t have a piece of Michael through his own children, but what we have now is this scholarship in his name, and that brings a little bit of peace,” said Blair (Carroll) Murphy. “I’ll continue to think of Notre Dame synonymously with our family and that feels really good.”
On May 14 at noon, family members, classmates, faculty, staff and friends will gather to dedicate a bench to Michael Carroll just to the west of the Stayer Center. For more information on giving to the Michael Carroll Memorial Fund, please visit giving.nd.edu or make a donation here.