An American to Remember: Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame

05/05/2015 03:08 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016
Notre Dame University

In 2007, on the 90th birthday of Father Theodore Hesburgh, the National Portrait Gallery acquired a photograph of the priest and university president holding hands with Martin Luther King, singing, "We Shall Overcome." It was taken at a controversial 1964 rally in Chicago after city and Church officials had refused to welcome King at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover. With hours left before the event, Father Hesburgh was asked to drive to Chicago and step in. He did not hesitate, and that stirring picture now hangs among other great Americans as a fitting tribute to Father Hesburgh, who died on February 26th at the age of 97.

At that 2007 dedication ceremony, and again last month speaking to 10,000 mourning students at the Notre Dame memorial, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told how a talk with Father Hesburgh, just after graduating from college, turned her toward international studies and a master's degree from Notre Dame. "Somehow his touch was so personal that even those who met him once or maybe never at all knew him and they loved him . . . Father Ted touched us deeply because of what he believed and because of how he lived."

When I first went to visit Notre Dame in 1957, I learned that there was a common joke about Father Ted. In good humor, the joke was: "What's the difference between God and Father Hesburgh?" to which the answer is "God is everywhere; Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame."

Faculty and students who laugh at that usually add that despite his extraordinary schedule of commitments to causes he believed in, beyond the borders of the University, Father Ted was there at Notre Dame whenever there was a problem needing to be solved, whether for one student or for the whole university. Including his strong leadership opening the University to women and enlarging the governing boards to include laity, in addition to the religious members of the founding Congregation of Holy Cross.

The great chancellor of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, said that under Father Hesburgh's leadership, "the Notre Dame efflorescence has been one of the most spectacular developments in higher education in the last 25 years."

Undergraduates claim that when they wanted to have a discussion with Father Ted and saw the light shining from his office under the Golden Dome at night, they would climb outdoors up to his third-story office to knock on his window, and Father Ted would be there, ready to talk. He remained deeply committed to Notre Dame, and to his vision for its future. As he says in the 1975 video, "The Endless Conversation":

"Notre Dame can and must be a crossroads where all the vital intellectual currents of our time meet in dialogue, where the great issues of the Church and the world today are plumbed to their depths, where every sincere inquirer is welcomed and listened to and respected by a serious consideration of what he has to say about his belief or unbelief, his certainty or uncertainty; where differences of culture and religion and conviction can co-exist with friendship, civility, hospitality, respect and love."

At his Memorial Service, I was asked to briefly tell the story of the most significant of Father Hesburgh's 16 Presidential appointments. In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed him to the first U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. I had the good luck to serve for two years as his legal counsel on that Commission. Onstage, I told the story of Father Hesburgh's remarkable influence, which made possible the Commission's important unanimous findings. That story has been published recently in The Atlantic.

Among Father Hesburgh's other difficult and complicated assignments was being asked by President Jimmy Carter to chair the Select Commission on Immigration. Carter also appointed him as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology (making him the first priest to become a U.S. Ambassador). The 39th President came to Notre Dame to pay tribute to his friend, and recalled Father Hesburgh's advice after Carter was elected: "I asked him, 'How can you advise anybody to be a leader of a great nation?' He said, 'Be human'."

One of the ways Father Hesburgh followed that advice himself came when he retired after 35 years as president of Notre Dame in 1987. He and his second-in-command Father Ned Joyce -- two priests who did not know how to cook when they set off -- spent a year traveling the globe. First they took an RV around the Western United States. Then they traveled to Latin America and Antarctica. Finally, they went around the world, earning their way as chaplains onboard the Queen Elizabeth II. Their journey is documented in their lively book Travels with Ted and Ned.

Another way Father Hesburgh was effectively human was in persuading President Carter to allow him to ride in the Air Force's fast new SR-71 Blackbird, fulfilling Father Ted's long cherished dream of breaking the aerial speed record.

Also in the category of "being human," came his unusual friendship with the Soviet nuclear scientist Vasilii Emelianov. While representing the Vatican at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 1956 to 1970, Father Hesburgh befriended Emelianov, a key Soviet delegate. He invited the Soviet scientist to visit Notre Dame and held a mass in his honor. Once, when Father Hesburgh was greeting Emelianov warmly in Vienna, he felt a tap on his shoulder. A U.S. State Department agent whispered, "Father Hesburgh, we have strict instructions not to be photographed smiling with the Russians." Father Ted replied: "My friend, you and I take our instructions from different quarters."

In 1960, Father Hesburgh was a champion of President Kennedy's idea of an international volunteer program, the Peace Corps. As Sargent Shriver's deputy in planning the Peace Corps, I remember Shriver in those first days reaching out to enlist Father Ted's advice. From the beginning, Father Ted also wanted Notre Dame itself to play an active role in making the Peace Corps successful.

In the early planning discussions he made a strong case for institutions of higher education being permitted to organize and manage programs overseas. Father Ted persuaded Shriver to let Notre Dame run an overseas program -- in Chile, the only Peace Corps country program run by a private institution. Father Ted was actively involved in organizing that program and visiting the Volunteers in Chile. They came not just from Notre Dame but from all over the country and of different religious affiliations. Their story in Chile by Notre Dame graduate Tom Scanlon can be found in his book, Waiting for the Snow.

Father Ted hoped that more universities would be able to organize their own country programs, but we underestimated the eagerness of government agencies to expand their operations and increase their funding from the government and their lack of enthusiasm for the devolution to independent-sector organizations, including colleges and universities. Father Ted and others of us regretted that Notre Dame's example did not prevail. Done well, we thought such devolution of power and money might have multiplied public support for a large Peace Corps and increased Congressional appropriations.

His nationwide leadership in higher education was clear during the unrest of the late 1960s. In 1969, he announced to students that disruption would not be tolerated at Notre Dame: "Anyone or any group that substitutes force for rational persuasion, be it violent or nonviolent, will be given 15 minutes of meditation to cease and desist." Those who did not would promptly face expulsion. The campus stayed peaceful, and Time later reported that due to Father Ted's influence "Notre Dame may well be among the nation's most disruption-proof major campuses." He was later asked to serve as the first priest on Harvard's Board of Overseers, which he chaired in 1994-95.

In recent decades, Father Ted often talked about Notre Dame's own national-service program, the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). While I was in the Senate, Father Hesburgh and Father Tim Scully took me to dinner in Washington to tell me about their idea for the program. ACE teachers come from all religions. Since it was started in 1993, it has engaged young college graduates to teach for a year or more in Catholic Schools nationwide facing severe shortages of funds and teachers. In addition to generosity from Notre Dame's donors, ACE has been supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service as part of AmeriCorps.

Father Hesburgh was also proud of his instrumental role in the establishment of the United States Institute of Peace, whose beautiful building sits across from the Lincoln Memorial and includes a hall named in his honor. He worked hard to persuade Congress to provide the necessary funds and was an active member of the Institute's board. The Institute itself recently organized a memorial service held in the stunning building that Father Ted's political skills had won Congressional support to build.

For Notre Dame's memorial service, President Obama sent a video reflecting his two visits to Notre Dame. When he came the second time, as President, in his speech he saluted Father Hesburgh and TV cameras caught Father Ted smiling in the front row. It reflected his non-partisan spirit and policy.

A few months ago, Father Ted, with eyesight and hearing limited and energy lower, called to ask how I was doing and was there anything he could do to be helpful. I said he'd be glad to know that an idea he helped shape and advance was moving again -- the idea of universal opportunities for full-time years of service for all young Americans as they come of age. It was an idea he had advanced as an active member of the 1979 Committee for the Study of National Service, which I initiated and co-chaired, aided by Father Ted. Now, General Stanley McChrystal and the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project are again moving the idea of service-years for all young Americans.

I told Father Ted that it would be helpful if he could restate his case for colleges and universities becoming major carriers for national service, and write an op-ed for a wide audience. He said "Yes, if we can do it together." My failing to follow through on that offer is one of many lost opportunities I can count.

He was determined to be human in the best sense, and was always dedicated to his most important role, being a priest. For him, "In the Beginning" was indeed the Word. Living at the university as a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross for 72 years, or while traveling, he gave priority to the words of the Mass that he said conveyed a lot of what he believed. During the 58 years of our friendship, every day -- morning, noon, or night -- when we were together, high importance was placed on the daily mass he offered. As he said:

"The Holy Spirit is the light and strength of my life, for which I am eternally grateful. My best daily prayer, apart from the Mass and breviary, continues to be simply, 'Come, Holy Spirit.' No better prayer, no better results: much light and much strength . . . Our words are buttressed by our deeds, and our deeds are inspired by our convictions."

You can read other chosen words to live by in Father Hesburgh's 1990 autobiography, God, Country, Notre Dame, which is also the University's motto.

Recently, I was reminded of the importance of Father Ted's role as priest in the public realm by the story of a Unitarian on the early Peace Corps staff who did not know how to refer to the Catholic priest who was such a presence in the new organization. After he made several references to "Reverend Hesburgh," I took him into a corner, sat him down, and said, "Say 'Father Ted'," then "say it again," and kept him practicing it until that affectionate yet accurate designation came naturally.

Many college presidents nowadays preach the need for students and faculty to engage in solving the problems of their communities, the nation, and the world. How many such leaders so engage themselves as college and university presidents? Father Ted did so all of his life as a priest.

I was lucky beyond measure to have joined in some of his big pursuits during more than a half century. Father Ted started as my employer and became my counselor in religion and life, my advocate and colleague in the world of higher education, and a close and lasting friend.

To quote Abraham Lincoln, "I am loath to close." Closing this is as hard as writing it and saying goodbye. I don't want Father Ted to end. He well earned the title "Father."

Fifty-eight years after we first met, I want to say it again -- "Father Ted."