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Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Sunflower Seeds

Celebrating Everyday Spirituality

Father Theodore Hesburgh: Priest, Educator, Citizen of the World

When many people hear the name Father Hesburgh they immediately think of the University of Notre Dame. After all, he served as president there from 1952 to 1987, one of the longest and most remarkable tenures in American higher education. But he was so much more than a long-lasting university president. He was a man who, for decades, worked tirelessly for peace and justice, earning for himself the title “Citizen of the World.”

Hesburgh was born on May 25, 1917 in Syracuse, New York. From his parents he inherited a mixture of German and

Young Father Ted
Young Father Ted

French with a touch of Irish. Having one older brother and two younger sisters, little Ted prayed for years for a baby brother. Ironically, his prayers were answered just as he was preparing to leave for the seminary. As a boy Hesburgh was intrigued by aviation, building his own model airplanes and, at age ten, scrounging up five bucks to get a 15 minute plane ride in an open cockpit plane. From boyhood, though, he had deeper aspirations than becoming a pilot. He wanted to become a priest. After graduating from high school, he left for the Holy Cross Seminary near Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

As a young seminarian, Hesburgh suffered keenly from homesickness. Later he said, “For a month I never unlocked my trunk because I didn’t know whether I’d stay.” But he worked through his homesickness and gave himself over to his studies. He did so well, his congregation sent him to Rome to complete his advanced studies there. Hesburgh, a natural linguist, soon became fluent in French, Latin, Italian, and Spanish. He was finishing his studies in 1940 when the U.S. Consul in Rome warned all Americans to leave Italy at once. The ship he was sailing on reached New York harbor just as Mussolini was declaring war on France.

Hesburgh was ordained on June 24, 1943. He requested to serve as a Navy chaplain, but was sent instead to teach at Notre Dame. After the war he served as “chaplain” to scores of returning veterans pouring into Notre Dame under the G.I. Bill of Rights. After serving  as rector of one of the dorms on campus, Hesburgh was appointed executive vice-president in 1949 and president in 1952.

hesburgh collageimages

What were some of his accomplishments as President? Alumnus Richard Conklin sums it up with these words: “In his 35 years at the helm, Father Hesburgh transformed the Catholic school into an institution of international distinction.” Hesburgh reorganized the administration, upgraded the faculty, cultivated donors, grew the endowment, did battle with athletic coaches, survived the campus unrest of the 60’s, increased student enrollment, led the movement to go co-ed in 1972, and oversaw the construction of dozens of new buildings.

But his many gifts took him far beyond the campus. Starting with an appointment to the National Science Board in 1954, Hesburgh served 16 presidential appointments.

Hesburgh with Martin Luther King, Jr., at a 1964 Civil Rights rally in Chicago. Hesburgh served on the Civil Rights Commission from its inception in 1952 until 1972.
Hesburgh with Martin Luther King, Jr., at a 1964 Civil Rights rally in Chicago. Hesburgh  has been called the chief architect of the Civil Rights legislation.

He knew personally all the U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. (President Obama called him to the Oval Office on his 96th birthday.) The presidents, no matter their party affiliation, praised his leadership on numerous commissions—except Richard Nixon who “fired” him from the Civil Rights Commission in 1972 because of his criticism of his administration.  Areas of special concern for Hesburgh were civil rights, immigration reform, abolition of nuclear weapons, amnesty for Vietnam offenders, Third and Fourth World development, and (of course) education. Commencements were a familiar venue for him. He was cited in the Guinness Book of Records for having received the most honorary degrees: 150.

But despite all these administrative tasks and vital commissions, Hesburgh always thought of himself as first and

Hesburgh was first and foremost a priest.
Hesburgh was first and foremost a priest.

foremost a priest. He was proud to celebrate Mass every day whether he was in South Bend, at the South Pole, or in the Kremlin. As a priest, he had a “personal touch,” whether visiting the sick, comforting the dying, baptizing infants, counseling a troubled priest, hearing a student’s confession late at night, meeting with heads of state, or conversing with a hotel doorman. Conklin writes: “He was careful not to inhale praise: he knew he would always be number 00652 to the people who worked in the laundry.”

At the Memorial tribute to Father Hesburgh, former president Jimmy Carter told this story. Carter said to Hesburgh one day, “If I ever can do anything for you, let me know.” Immediately Hesburgh said, “I’ve always wanted to ride in one of those fastest planes in the world.” He told Carter the plane he had in mind was the SR-71, called Blackbird.  Carter said that it was not customary for a civilian to ride in a top-secret plane. Hesburgh replied, “That’s all right.” Then he added, “I thought you were Commander-in-Chief.” So President Carter made a few phone calls and Father Hesburgh got his ride in February 1979. The pilot went 2,200 miles an hour, which set a new record for the fastest any human being had flown except for the astronauts in a rocket.

Fr. Hesburgh fishing (and looking a lot like Earnest Hemingway!)
Fr. Hesburgh fishing (and looking a lot like Earnest Hemingway!)

Hesburgh’s favorite photo of himself was not one of him with presidents, popes, or other notables. Instead it is a picture of him alone in a boat fishing at Land O Lakes, Notre Dame’s 7,500 acre, 30 lake environmental research center located in both Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Hesburgh fished there every summer. He said, “Fishing has therapeutic effects. And it’s fun. You’ve got to have something for fun.”

At the celebration of Hesburgh’s 96th birthday on Capitol Hill, Vice President Joe Biden praised the University of Notre Dame for not simply educating their students, but for “awakening their conscience.” Then he said to Fr. Hesburgh: “You’re one of the most powerful unelected officials this country has ever seen.”

The video I chose for today comes to us from beneath the Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame. The Irish trumpets play two selections for us: the Notre Dame Alma Mater and the traditional “Notre Dame Fight Song.”


Is there anything that stands out for you about the life and character of Fr. Hesburgh?

7 Responses

  1. What I found as almost funny was Pres. Nixon “firing” the Father. Lying and thieving Pres. Nixon didn’t care for Father Hesburgh’s straight forwardness. I am 74 years and still have a wee recall of Nixon and watching his facial expressions during some of his televised talks.

  2. I surely admire him for his work for civil rights, for immigration reform, and for abolition of nuclear weapons.
    Sr. Julie

  3. Sr. Melannie, I so enjoyed reading about Fr. Hesburgh. My mother was a graduate of St. Mary’s, Notre Dame in 1941. Our family has a special place in our hearts for anything Notre Dame. One thing that stood out for me was that he served as president of the university for 35 years! I also found it interesting that he was “homesick” when he first arrived in South Bend.

  4. Are you aware of the book God’s Icebreaker: The Life and Adventures of Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame by Jill A. Boughton and Julie Walters (Corby Books, 2012), written for younger readers but enjoyed by many adults as well? Currently available only through the ND Bookstore.

  5. Fr. Hesburgh was the commencement speaker in August 1981 when I received my Masters Degree from the University of Michigan. I also spent several weeks over 7 or 8 years at Retreats International Summer Institutes on the Notre Dame Campus when he was President. Some of the best times of my life! I admire him for taking on whatever was the next challenge that presented itself. His intelligence and humility produced good results for the world.

  6. A wonderful posting about a wonderful person! I’m a graduate of Notre Dame who was able to take advantage of the academic improvements Father Hesburgh made at that school. But his greatest accomplishment at ND may have been developing a university that focuses on doing what is right for the world.

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