The all too frequent descriptions of someone or something as “great” leave that overused word with questionable meaning. Unquestionably, however, “great” is an accurate description of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh.
Greatness was achieved by “Father Ted,” as he preferred to be addressed, in multiple areas — education, religion, government — as he served popes and presidents and people struggling for civil rights and opportunity.
As president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, he brought academic excellence and the positive influence of female students to what had been regarded as more of a “football factory” than a highly acclaimed institution of higher learning.
Stories abound about Hesburgh always finding time to talk with students, listening to their concerns as intently as he would to concerns of presidents he served, advised and sometimes admonished since his first presidential appointment from Dwight D. Eisenhower.
While priestly — and he always said “priest” was the role he most cherished — Hesburgh also pushed hard.
So much so in pushing for civil rights that President Richard M. Nixon, reluctant in that cause, fired him (demanded his resignation) as chairman of the Civil Rights Commission.
Listeners were sometimes surprised to hear Hesburgh praise President Lyndon B. Johnson more than the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in discussing their presidencies. He said it was Johnson who pushed through civil rights legislation that Kennedy could not bring to passage.
There is the oft told story, repeated by President Barack Obama in his Notre Dame commencement speech in 2009, about how Hesburgh convinced a split Civil Rights Commission to agree on recommendations that later led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Hesburgh discovered that the commission members all liked fishing. So, he took them to Notre Dame’s retreat at Land O’Lakes, Wis., where, as Obama said: “They fished and talked and changed the course of history.”
Although Obama accepted the Notre Dame commencement invitation to honor Hesburgh, critics of Obama protested over differences with the president on politics and Catholic theology.
Hesburgh, while not agreeing with everything exposed by Obama or by any of the other presidents he knew, disliked protests that he found detracting from commencement, especially a plane with loud engine and protest banner that flew around and around campus.
When I was talking with Hesburgh at that time at a favorite restaurant of his in Mishawaka, he expressed his displeasure.
“I’d like to go up and shoot down that damn plane,” he said. He paused, smiled, making clear he of course favored no such tactic, and added: “But I suppose that would not be appropriate.”
He later sent a note to me about his views on the commencement tensions, concluding: “I think when it was all over, one had to say that it was probably the best commencement we ever had and that we honored our president in a way that few others had.”
And he never suggested honoring that president, or any president, meant honoring all that the honoree espoused.
Hesburgh also was there to honor President Ronald Reagan, with whom he also did not share total agreement, when Reagan delivered the 1981 commencement address, soon after recovering from an assassination attempt. As noted in The New York Times, Hesburgh hailed the president’s recovery and expressed the fondness for Reagan’s special place in Notre Dame lore: “We welcome the president of the United States back into the body of his people, the Americans, and lastly, here at Notre Dame, here in a very special way, we welcome the Gipper at long last back to get his degree.”
Even as he served popes and became America’s most prominent priest, Hesburgh defended Notre Dame independence when he feared the Vatican would seek too much control.
As Robert P. Schmuhl, a Notre Dame professor who knew Hesburgh well, observed: “He never flinched from taking a stand and welcomed the chance to speak out in controversial issues. He had a spine of steel.”
Also, Schmuhl said, he had a moral compass that always seemed to be pointed in the right direction.
Hesburgh sought also to point others in the right direction, sometimes in an insistent way.
Former Notre Dame basketball coach Richard “Digger” Phelps, a frequent dinner companion of Hesburgh, tells of how Hesburgh challenged him after Phelps no longer was coaching.
“What have you been doing?” Hesburgh asked, according to Phelps, and Hesburgh wasn’t too impressed to hear of work as an ESPN analyst and summer enjoyment with golf and travel. “That’s it?” Hesburgh questioned, making clear that he expected work on other causes. So, Phelps began promoting causes for education, especially for the disadvantaged. He, like others, found it hard ever to say “no” to Hesburgh’s call to serve.
Jack Colwell is a writer for the South Bend Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].