The smells of Creighton

Jul 01, 2021

Father Larry Gillick, SJ, is blind. But every day, he says, he "sees" Creighton. To show us what Creighton looks like to him, he gave us a campus tour like no other — a tour of touch and sound but mostly of smell.

Featured Testimonial About Creighton University

Father Larry Gillick in front of St. John's Church.

Smell gives me a strong emotional connection to my memories. It gives me an atmosphere.

Larry Gillick SJ

By Micah Mertes

Father Larry Gillick, SJ, is blind. But every day, he says, he sees Creighton. The buildings, the trees, the Mall, the people — they live in his mind’s eye, a picture of Creighton unlike any other.

This summer, Gillick will celebrate his 30th year as director of the Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality, and even though he’s never actually seen campus, he says, “I’ve touched it, I’ve heard it, I’ve smelled it. And once I sense something, I see it.”

Larry Gillick mug
Father Larry Gillick

Gillick lost his sight in a childhood accident, but he says his occipital lobe — the part of the brain that interprets our vision of the world — remains very much alive. Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks once said, “We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain, as well. Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation. Every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

Sacks referred to the landscapes of our mind as our “inscapes.” No one’s inscape of a place is the same as anyone else’s, even those aided by 20-20 vision.

Gillick wanted to share his own inscape of Creighton. He agreed to give us a campus tour like no other — a tour of touch and sound but mostly of smell. Smell, Gillick says, is the most powerful link to memories, the quickest route to the times and places we cherish the most.

We conducted our tour one afternoon on the last week of the academic year, starting at Morrison Stadium and working our way west. Our tour stops were limited somewhat by time constraints and building access. Though wherever we went, people knew Gillick and were happy to help us out.

* * *

A campus tour

Morrison Stadium

A state high school tournament game is underway, so the sound of cheering drowns out everything else. Though on quiet days, when the wind is blowing right, Gillick can hear the planes taking off at Eppley Airfield.

But what does a mid-afternoon soccer game smell like?

Gillick: “Today it smells like spring. The campus in spring has more smells than any other season, and they’re tremendous smells. The smell of freshly cut grass, the blossoms in the trees.”

When the wind is right, he says, you can smell Pettit’s Pastry (a block east of Morrison).

Gillick: “That’s such a great and seductive and welcoming smell when you come to this end of Creighton. It just bathes campus. Sometimes it will even make it all the way to Creighton Hall. Wherever Creighton alumni are, if they smell donuts outside, they’ll think of Pettit’s.”

Later, I spoke with Mark Pettit, vice president of the business his family has owned for more than 65 years. I told him about Gillick’s observation about the smells of Pettit’s Pastry being forever baked into so many Creighton memories.

Pettit: “We appreciate that. We’ve been blessed to be here so long, and we’re glad we can make someone’s life a little better by the smell of fresh pastries.”

Rasmussen Center

Gillick: “Smells like rubber.”

Ryan Athletic Center

Upon entering the gym …

Gillick: “There's always a breeze going somewhere in a building. You feel it on your face? This smells like polished wood. Oh, it's such a beautiful place.”

Me: “Should we go smell the locker room?”

Gillick: “That’s OK. We all know what a locker room smells like.”

Championship Center

Gillick: “The weight room smells very rubber.”

The weight room’s sound is Creedence Clearwater. Gillick sings along.

Harper Center/Heider College of Business

Gillick: “It smells like ... paper.”

As we pass Starbucks …

Gillick: “Now it smells like food cooking. Some coffee. I don’t drink coffee, but I don’t mind the smell of it.”

The St. Peter Faber, SJ, Chapel

(Learn more about the new chapel here.)

Gillick: “Smells new. It smells like paint that has settled well.”

Hixson-Lied Auditorium

Students are taking an exam. Dead silence.

Gillick (whispering): “The auditorium smells … stale. Like there’s been a lot of students in here, frequently.”

On the Mall, heading west, passing the softball field

Gillick: “One thing we’ve got to talk about is cut grass. You can tell by the smell when grass has been cut within the last hour. After that, it changes to a different smell. For the next few hours after that, it doesn’t smell fresh. It starts to smell more like hay.”

Me:So you can track grass’ time of death by smell?”

Gillick: “Yes, exactly.”

McGloin Hall

For every other building we enter, Gillick offers an anecdote or piece of history. In some cases, he knows (or knew) the building’s namesake.

Gillick: “This hall was named after a wonderful Jesuit — Father Richard McGloin. He was here for 50 years. He taught Latin and Greek and lived on the first floor of Swanson.”

Gillick stops, takes a deep breath.

Gillick: “Smells like used air. The dorms have the stale air of breathing bodies.”

Lied Education Center for the Arts

Gillick: “Now this smells like new air. Clean. Good ventilation.”

Approaching 24th Street from the east

Gillick: “Smell gives me a strong emotional connection to my memories. It gives me an atmosphere. But I don’t get around by smell. It doesn’t offer direction. For clues on how to get around campus, I listen to the traffic on 24th Street and 480.”

Beal’s Grill

Before closing in 1986, Beal’s stood at the corner of 24th and California Streets for decades. The small café with the horseshoe counter served as many as 900 people daily and was a favorite hangout for students, faculty and staff alike. And yet …

Gillick: “Oh, Beal’s smelled awful to me. Old grease. Old boiling fat. You could smell the bones of the cow. In most cases, a greasy smell of hamburgers and French fries is very inviting. This was not my experience with Beal’s. I can still smell it when I walk by this corner.”

Disclaimer: The smells and opinions of Fr. Larry Gillick do not reflect the official position of Creighton University. Smeller discretion is advised.

The 24th Street walk signal

Walk signal to cross 24th Street is now on …

For decades, this voice has safely guided Gillick and countless others across 24th Street.

Gillick: “Yes, that poor woman has been scrunched up in that little speaker box all these years. She always gets cut off the third time she tries to say the walk signal is on. I could never have crossed the street without the security of that sound.”

Gillick says there's perhaps no better Creighton metaphor for change than the walk signal itself. About a decade ago at a Baccalaureate Mass, Gillick gave a homily for graduating students. Beforehand, he stopped by 24th Street and grabbed a recording of the walk signal to play during his homily.

Gillick: “The signal is perfect for a graduation homily. Graduation is a signal to cross, not just this 24th Street, but all the other 24th Streets you'll ever cross.”

Creighton Hall

Gillick: “The heat is still on. It smells warm. Smells like old radiators.”

Gillick knows Creighton Hall so well that when the slightest thing changes, it’s a problem. When objects have been moved in the past, it’s thrown off his sense of place. Once, he smacked right into a wall.

Gillick: “Sometimes you won't learn something until you run into it.”

Creighton Hall dining room

We run into the chef, Al. He and Gillick have known each other for several years. They get a banter going.

Gillick: “We’re doing a funny thing, Al. He’s a writer, and we’re touring campus by smell.”

Gillick turns back to me …

Gillick: “There are a lot of smells here. The fruit on that table has a smell. The hand sanitizer has a smell. Al’s got a smell.”

Me: “What does Al smell like?”

Gillick: “Holiness. He has the smell of sanctity.”

Al: “Uh oh.”

Father Larry Gillick walking in front of St. John's Church.

The St. John’s Fountain

Gillick: “Sometimes the fountain smells when they put chlorine in it to clean it.”

Gillick stops …

Gillick: “I can tell right where, if we’re walking from east to west, the fountain on the right-hand side slopes down just a little bit. No one would notice. But that decline helps me know where I am. The touch and textures and slopes of Creighton always show me where I am.”

St. John’s Church

Gillick: “It smells ... churchy. “

Me: “What does churchy smell like?”

Gillick: “Hundreds of years of candles. And lingering incense. You can’t get rid of incense. This church has a lot of memories.”

Kiewit Fitness Center

Gillick: “There’s that Kiewit smell. It's a different rubber smell than the new gym.”

Skutt Student Center


Gillick: “You don’t really smell the coffee. You smell the fruit drinks. Must be the time of day.”

Students in the center — talking, laughing.

Gillick: “I'm going to miss these kids this summer. The sound of them.”

In front of the Reinert-Alumni Memorial Library

Walking up to the library, we run into a few of Gillick’s students. An abridged version of our encounter …

Inside the library

Gillick: “Smells like books. Bodies. Mostly books.”

Me: “What does a book smell like? To you.”

Gillick: “New books smell like glossy plastic. Old books smell like damp paper.”

Me: “So at first the plastic overwhelms the paper, but eventually the paper wins? That’s the fate of every book?”

Gillick: “Yes, a book’s shiny plastic polish soon gives way to the grease of many hands handling it.”

The alley between St. John’s and Creighton Hall, leading into the Jesuit gardens and toward Gillick’s residence

We hear the hum of electricity from Creighton Hall.

Gillick: “The electricity. I always know where I am when I come here. And right there is the water drain, and then it's exactly 30 steps from the beginning of the grass to my sidewalk.”

Jesuit Gardens

Gillick: “The blooming trees and the cut grass. When you're in the Jesuit Gardens, and they just mowed it, when you're walking in that garden in the spring, you don't smell the air; you eat it. There’s a big wall that blocks the exhaust of the cars and buses. It just smells clean back here. Smells like the garden of paradise.”

Takes a deep breath.

Gillick: “With these smells, I can go anywhere.”