Death of Notre Dame's Hesburgh closes an era

Holy Cross Fr. Ted Hesburgh
Holy Cross Fr. Ted Hesburgh

by Arthur Jones

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The death of Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Martin “Ted” Hesburgh, the University of Notre Dame’s longest-serving president, late on Thursday at age 97 has finally closed the door on the American Catholic era.

Born in 1917, into a time when Catholics were distrusted, despised and discriminated against, the Syracuse, N.Y., native kept pace with, and in many ways encouraged, the emergence of the American Catholic laity. It was an emergence paid for in part by the GI Bill that funded the college education of War World II veterans and gave the young priest his first Notre Dame job, as chaplain to those men and their families. They lived on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind., in the hastily constructed “Vetsville,” land now partially occupied by the Hesburgh Library.

Those GIs, their wives and their children were the flowering of American Catholicism. They found their voices and places nationally in politics, academia, the corporate world and public affairs, in print and on television. In the public sphere, these were the Catholic generations that flushed with justifiable pride at the sight of Catholic nuns and priests flocking to the civil rights marches from Selma, Ala., in 1965. This was during the period in which Hesburgh was a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (He served on the commission from 1957 to 1972.)

A child of a church and society of clear mores, fixed values and social markers, not all of them fair or defensible, Hesburgh was a voice for reason, compassion and educational opportunity for all. He not only spanned the changes but personified them. When the English Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh was given 12 pages of Life magazine to write on the emergence of American Catholics, and spoke in 1949 at the drill hall on Notre Dame’s campus, Hesburgh was in the audience. Three years later, Hesburgh was appointed Notre Dame’s president at the age of 35.

A statement on the university website says Hesburgh died at 11:30 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 26) at Holy Cross House adjacent to the University.

“We mourn today a great man and faithful priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame and touched the lives of many,” said Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president. “With his leadership, charisma and vision, he turned a relatively small Catholic college known for football into one of the nation’s great institutions for higher learning.

“Although saddened by his loss, I cherish the memory of a mentor, friend and brother in Holy Cross and am consoled that he is now at peace with the God he served so well.”

Where public and Catholic life coincided, Hesburgh’s was the era of the “two Johns” — Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy — and of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The council’s impetus soon saw the American Catholic laity reaching for new roles, creating new goals, and arguing for a more compassionate society and activist church in a nation fractured by the Vietnam War. Two decades later it was a church squaring off internally with itself, as Catholics of varied preferences and persuasions took stances that would in time shatter its previous unity.

To generations of students, Hesburgh was Notre Dame. By the time he retired, four out of five living alumni had his signature on their diploma.

His outspokenness on thorny public issues and his defense of academic freedom and open debate on the church’s neuralgic issues kept him in the secular and religious headlines for three decades. For the quarter-century-plus of his retirement, his dedication to the university and the students as priest and promoter kept him a fixture in the lives of both.

Born on May 25, 1917, one of five children — his father, also Theodore, was a Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company executive — Hesburgh attended Notre Dame from 1934 to 1937. In 1939, he received his Bachelor of Philosophy from Rome’s Gregorian University.

Following his 1943 ordination as a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross in the campus’ Sacred Heart Church, Hesburgh received his doctorate in sacred theology in 1945 from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and joined the Notre Dame theology faculty. By 1948, he was department head, and the next year executive vice president under Holy Cross Fr. John J. Cavanaugh.

In 1952, “Father Ted” became the university president. The day Hesburgh assumed office, outgoing president Cavanaugh “reached into the pocket in his cassock and pulled out the key to the president’s office. He just handed it to me and said he was leaving for New York right away. That was it. There was even mail on his desk I had to answer,” Hesburgh later recalled.

He plunged into the work with youthful enthusiasm, determined to create a world-class university as a world-girdling president speaking out forcefully on national and global issues. In 1962, he was on the cover of TIME magazine. By 1964, he’d received — from President Lyndon B. Johnson — the Presidential Medal of Freedom for service, not least on the Commission on Civil Rights, plus the National Science Board and the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs.

In that same decade, back in South Bend, he launched a five-year, $52 million development program that raised $47 million in the first two years, created 40 endowed professorships, and expanded graduate education and research. His extracurricular service to higher education by then included presidency of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, and membership on the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and more.

Halcyon days indeed. In the 1960s and ’70s, Hesburgh was rarely out of the news.

  • In early 1968, he told Catholic educators at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium: “Theology must be free, for it will be accepted as a true university discipline only if operates under the same kind of freedom and autonomy as do other disciplines.”
  • In October, he defended the rights of faculty members to speak publicly “according to their own competence,” even when they disagree with the pope.
  • He labeled protest as “clearly tyranny” when, in December 1968, a Notre Dame student demonstration prevented the Central Intelligence Agency from conducting on-campus job interviews.
  • By early March 1969, there were student riots on campuses across America. Hesburgh vowed instant expulsion for any Notre Dame student participating in confrontation politics. “Any students or faculty on the scene” disrupting “normal operations of the university” or individual rights “will be suspended after 15 minutes and expelled after 20 minutes if they don’t stop obstructing.” The dean of men would be there with a stopwatch. President Richard Nixon praised Hesburgh’s stand, but Hesburgh was soon writing to Vice President Spiro Agnew warning against the government taking the initiative to involve itself in quelling campus violence. He wrote that the universities themselves must be the final judges of when outside help was needed: “Let us all assume it will be asked for, and given quickly, effectively and as humanely as possible as a last alternative to internal self-correction.” (That was 12 months before the Kent State student massacre, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on protesting students.)
  • In late March 1969, Nixon named Hesburgh chair of the Commission on Civil Rights.
  • In June, Hesburgh suggested the government assure a college education to all Americans in return for a year of national service.
  • At commencements that year, Hesburgh collected the 29th of his honorary doctorates, a collection of robes and diplomas that would reach 106 by the time of his retirement.

The Nixon administration began to feel the heat from Hesburgh in the early 1970s as he turned up the volume of criticism on its record of civil rights inaction at home and foreign aid cuts abroad. Hesburgh warned against a constitutional amendment to prevent busing, warned of “civil disorders in a divided nation,” and, in a 1,100-page Commission on Civil Rights report, he singled out the Civil Service Commission, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development policies as examples of Nixonian hypocrisy.

When Nixon was re-elected in 1972, he fired Hesburgh as commission chairman. Hesburgh subsequently resigned from the commission itself.

In 1977, marking a quarter-century as president — he still slept on an iron cot in an old residence hall — Hesburgh hadn’t forgotten his ouster. He took his morning coffee in a mug emblazoned with a $3 bill that bore Nixon’s face.

The 1970s brought no slowdown in the Notre Dame president’s willingness to speak out in defense of open discussion on Catholic campuses. For example, blasted in “the ultraconservative Catholic press,” he told a May 1974 Notre Dame dinner gathering that while he did not favor abortion, he defended a university’s right to discuss such issues. The next month he spoke of “super-Catholics,” “mindless and crude” pro-life advocates. He criticized the “search and destroy” tactics of the “narrow-minded, super-orthodox and ultra-righteous segment of the Catholic press.”

“We cannot be loud in condemning abortion after being silent about napalmed Vietnamese or seemingly unconscious of the horrible present fact that 60 percent of the children already born in the poorest countries … die before the age of 5.”

Following Watergate and President Gerald Ford’s assuming office, Hesburgh and New York Cardinal Terence Cooke, with Jewish and Protestant leaders, called on Ford to “initiate the immediate shipment of 2 million tons of additional food aid” to poor countries as the world food crisis worsened. Hesburgh was also speaking as board chairman of the Overseas Development Council. Ford assured Hesburgh of his commitment but said he was not yet ready to reveal the administration’s food aid policies. Hesburgh responded by asking for 4 million tons rather than 2 million.

On campus, while bemoaning the ’70s-era college students as cynical and apathetic, he sympathized with their “hunger for meaning in their lives” despite “a hopelessness and listlessness that is a fallout from Watergate.” Nonetheless, when preaching at a Mass to mark the Vietnam Peace Observance, he told 3,500 students that if they learned one thing from Vietnam, “it should have been the foolishness of war.” Hesburgh also pleaded for reconciliation with the thousands of young persons who went to jail or left the country rather than fight in a war they considered immoral.

He advocated clemency for those convicted of violating Selective Service law or deserting the armed forces during the Vietnam War. Hesburgh, a member of a presidential clemency board, said in a taped radio and television address, “It’s an honest program that protects your rights and integrity or I wouldn’t be part of it. I spoke out for a long time against the Vietnam War. Most important to me as a priest and an educator, our program is conceived in the tradition of forgiveness.”

There obviously wasn’t the same fellow feeling in the Chicago Police Department. In April 1975, Hesburgh learned the city’s finest had been keeping a dossier on him and hundreds of others. Mayor Richard Daley offered no explanation for the mass spying effort.

The next month, Hesburgh was telling Americans that the United States was suffering from “a wounded self-image” from the “double moral shock of Watergate and the Vietnam War.” The cure was for the nation to involve itself in solving the problems of an interdependent world — and one way to do that was by doing what America does best: “grow food.” Hesburgh knew farming was arduous — he’d worked on a farm as a young man.

With the election of Jimmy Carter as president, by December 1976, the Notre Dame president had another White House duty: as a consultant on high-level administration appointments.

In his 1978 address to the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, Hesburgh envisioned a further role for the world’s “great universities, leading the way to eradicate world poverty and hunger,” though he warned that reordering political priorities toward that humanitarian goal would be far more difficult. “Everything we know and teach in our universities today would point in the direction of a better world,” he said, “but we need the political will to mount the necessary effort with as much determination and zeal as we use to pile up mountains of arms and luxuries.”

Others were envisioning a different role for Hesburgh. Columnist Fr. Richard P. McBrien recommended him as a future Cardinal-Archbishop of New York. Hesburgh did not move to Madison Avenue, but continued to live on campus, the only home he had had since 1945.

In 1979, Carter appointed Hesburgh to the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

Hesburgh was active in the “atoms for peace” program seeking applications for nuclear energy, attending Vienna-based meetings on the nuclear peril with world leaders. He warned students they were the first generation “facing the probability of an act that would destroy all of God’s creation,” yet he had “no problems” with a Notre Dame engineering professor accepting a $49,500 grant from the Defense Nuclear Agency to study the effects of a nuclear explosion on a metropolitan city.

In 1982, after more than 10 years as chairman of the Overseas Development Council, he handed the reins over to Robert S. McNamara. As he did so, he said the council’s successes had included raising $70 million in four months to aid Cambodia; its major failure had been its inability to bring stability to the world food supply.

In 1983, after reading the third draft of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ letter on war and peace, Hesburgh wrote:

The letter will not be liked by those who want everything, even very complicated issues, to be absolutely settled; true or false, right or wrong, good or evil, no ambiguity. Nor will the ‘my country right or wrong’ crowd like this letter, although the patriotism of the bishops shines from many pages. The Russians will find it troublesome, too, despite the effort to make us neither saints nor devils. The hawks will be unhappy and some doves, too. Some will find it strong medicine, some others, not strong enough. But at least and at best, a dialogue has been begun on a high level, public opinion is beginning to form, and the letter injects both faith and reason into the discussion of new and creative policies on war and peace.

At Notre Dame, President Hesburgh apparently had his shortcomings. He was not able to find a balance between the male and female faculty, for the latter complained of unequal treatment and opportunities. Nor was he able to wrap his mind around what also would become — following his retirement — a prolonged issue on campus: the presence of gay and lesbian students and their right to meet as a recognized student organization. Michael O’Brien in his Hesburgh: A Biography, quoted a Hesburgh colleague who said, “He just absolutely blocks completely on any kind of discussion of homosexuality.”

On another of what O’Brien called the Catholic “sexy six” (abortion, divorce, homosexuality, birth control, women priests and married priests), Hesburgh wrote that a new civil rights revolution was needed to make U.S. law reflect the American consensus on restricting abortion: “The widespread uneasiness about 1,500,000 abortions a year on demand, overwhelmingly for the convenience of the mother, is not an exclusively Catholic malaise.”

Another thorny 1980s campus — and global — issue was racial apartheid in South Africa. Whether from public pressure or personal preference, the board of trustees, following a May 1986 meeting, was “prepared to divest completely from companies that do business in South Africa,” Hesburgh said. That the trustees did not immediately order divestment was seen as a sellout by those battling apartheid. Nonetheless, at the December trustees meeting, board president Donald Keough, also Coca-Cola president, could say the university was serious about divestment, and his company also intended to withdraw from the country. At that same meeting, six months before Hesburgh’s 70th birthday and intended retirement, the board also announced who would succeed him: Holy Cross Fr. Edward Malloy, associate provost.

(The apartheid issue was significant as the university’s endowment likely included a significant percentage of South Africa corporate dealings. The endowment, $9 million when Hesburgh assumed the presidency, was by then approaching $360 million — $1.22 billion in today’s purchasing power. Today, Notre Dame’s endowment today is $6 billion. It ranks with Michigan, Northwestern and Columbia. Harvard tops the list at $27 billion.)

Hesburgh left office following the 1987 commencement.

Theodore Hesburgh lived across a century that saw the American Catholic church go from monitoring and censoring Hollywood movies, to seeing itself castigated for its financial dealings in television documentaries; from a church that banned books, to a church skewered in books by investigative reporters who revealed its cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse; from a church of blind obedience to Rome, to a Rome now reeling from the exodus of its educated middle class across Western Europe and the developed world.

Retirement years generally dealt kindly with the aging Holy Cross priest-president. He said a daily Mass wherever he was, usually in the private chapel in his office complex on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library. He continued to receive Catholic and national honors, accepting with, as one friend noted, “his customary modesty.”

With his death, there is another measure of his lifespan that brings both his Catholic and national significance into focus: He and President John F. Kennedy were born in the same year. In different ways, with Hesburgh slightly ahead of the curve, each ushered in a public Catholic America now all but receded into history.

[Arthur Jones is a former editor and publisher of NCR.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Hesburgh's death at 97 closes an era.

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