Biographical Essay

By Richard W. Conklin
Associate Vice President for University Relations (retired)

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, is one of the most influential Catholic priests in 20th century American history. He has made his mark not only on higher education but also on many of the era’s pressing social issues, including civil rights, Third World development, and nuclear proliferation.

When he stepped down in 1987 after 35 years as head of Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh was the longest-serving among active presidents of the nation’s college and universities, and his then 110 honorary degrees, the most awarded a living person, confirmed his stature as the elder statesman of American higher education. During his stewardship of the best-known Catholic university in the United States, he turned a school perceived through the lens of football into one with a first-rate academic reputation and an endowment ranked among the top 20 in the country. Shortly after he was appointed President of Notre Dame, he was tossed a football at a news conference and asked to assume the hiking position for a photograph, an incident he never forgot. The transition in image was evident when reporters from the national media trooped to campus to do interviews with the retiring Father Hesburgh. None was a sportswriter, and there were questions about a wide range of educational, religious and social concerns, but none about football.

His key decisions at Notre Dame changed its governance in 1967 and introduced undergraduate coeducation in 1972. Notre Dame was among the first Catholic institutions of higher learning to change over from clerical control to a two-tiered, mixed board of lay and religious trustees and fellows, a move that reflected Father Hesburgh’s belief that the University’s academic aspirations depended on lay support stemming only from a sense of ownership. After a failed merger with neighboring Saint Mary’s College for women, Notre Dame for the first time admitted female students to its baccalaureate programs. “If we say we are educating for leadership, we ought to educate the other half of the human race,” he explained at the time.

On the national level, Father Hesburgh was associated with virtually every important initiative dealing with American higher education and served on the Carnegie Fund for the Advancement of Teaching and on the Carnegie Commission on the Future of Higher Education. His leadership was especially evident during the campus disturbances over the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He took a firm stand against campus protesters who trampled the rights of others but was honored in 1970 by the American Association of University Professors after he intervened successfully against a move by President Nixon to use federal troops to put down student unrest.

On the international level, Notre Dame’s President spearheaded a move by the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) to redefine the nature of a contemporary Catholic university, with particular emphasis on the compatibility of a religious mission with academic freedom. “A Catholic university should be a place where the Church can do its thinking,” he noted. In this as well as other global initiatives, he found his mastery of languages a great advantage. He could speak French, Italian, German, and Spanish, and once isolated a disruptive IFCU committee member by switching the discussion from English to French and giving his nemesis a slow translator. As with most priests educated in his time, he also knew Latin well, and once conversed candidly in that dead language with a Chinese priest, much to the consternation of his Communist minder.

Even in retirement, Father Hesburgh’s involvement in higher education issues has continued. He cochaired the Knight Commission on the reform of intercollegiate athletics and served on the Harvard Board of Overseers, including two years (1994–95) as chair. The Harvard position was not the only time he found himself in an historically unique role as a priest. He was certainly the first person with a vow of poverty to serve as a director of the Chase Manhattan Bank and a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. And he was thought to be the first person in Roman collar to have a formal U.S. ambassadorship (to a 1979 U.N. Conference on Science and Technology).

Trained as a theologian, he received appointment to the National Science Board in 1954 and began an education in science and technology that would serve him well in several capacities, particularly as representative of the Vatican to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1956 to 1970. He became a vocal advocate for the elimination of nuclear arms and organized meetings of internationally known scientists and theologians to make common cause against atomic weapons. Yet he was not anti-military; indeed, at one point in his life, he wanted to become a military chaplain. He staunchly defended the legitimacy of ROTC on campuses and respected the role of the armed services. He flew in an Air Force jet that matched the speed of a bullet, and after retirement hitched a ride on a nuclear submarine to Hawaii. NASA’s mission fascinated him, and he was a finalist for a civilian slot on a space vehicle before those were eliminated after the Challenger disaster. As a theologian, he did not think Earth was necessarily the Creator’s only work.

The plight of underdeveloped countries has been another area drawing Father Hesburgh’s interest. He often used the analogy of a spaceship in which one of the five occupants (the developed world) used 80 percent of the resources aboard, leaving 20 percent for the other four, representing the population of the Third and Fourth Worlds. In 1971 he joined the board of the Overseas Development Council, a private organization that supported underdeveloped countries. During the Carter administration, he quickly put together a federal government-private industry effort that averted mass starvation in Cambodia. The spaceship analogy rested on justice issues, and he came to see human rights as essential to progress in the Third and Fourth Worlds, particularly the education and social equality of women.

Father Hesburgh’s public service has been extraordinary. It included 16 presidential appointments over the years and was recognized by both the Medal of Freedom, presented by President Johnson in 1964, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000. These presidential assignments involved him in the nation’s major problems, from civil rights to immigration reform, from amnesty for Vietnam War offenders to global conflict resolution. President Eisenhower appointed him as a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957, and President Nixon fired him as its chairman in 1972 after the commission’s “report card” on civil rights flunked his administration. In between these dates came the historic 1960s federal legislation on housing, jobs and voting that broke the back of de facto apartheid in the country. As recently as 1998, Father Hesburgh, in his 80s, could be found inspecting refugee camps in Kosovo for the U.N., and he was a member of the Anti-Incitement Committee set up by the Wye Plantation Treaty to mute Israeli-Palestinian tension.

While the jobs have been many, the vocation has been one. When once asked what he would want on his tombstone, Father Hesburgh responded with one word, “Priest.” Faithful to the discipline he accepted at ordination into the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1943, he has prayed his breviary daily and missed celebrating Mass only a handful of days in his priestly life. The unusual places in which he said Mass mirrored his diverse career- -at the South Pole; in an Anglican chapel in London that had not seen a Roman Catholic liturgy since the 16th century; in a room at the Kremlin; in a train dining car, and in a Saudi Arabian hotel (after sneaking altar wine into the alcohol-banning Muslim country by disguising it as shaving lotion). He saw the role of priest as one of mediating God’s love. “All human beings are our neighbors, especially when they are in need,” he said. “It matters not whether they are white or black, red or yellow, men or women, Eastern or Western, Northerner or Southerner, young or old, intelligent or dull, good or bad, attractive or repulsive.”

In retirement, he has occupied an office suite on the 13th floor of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library, one of two buildings on campus named after him, the other being the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. He has devoted much of his time to nurturing five campus institutes he had a hand in establishing and which reflected his lifelong interests in international affairs, global peace, civil and human rights, ecumenism, and the environment. The last, represented by a biological research facility on 7,000 acres of lakes and woods near Land O’Lakes, Wis., also was important to Father Hesburgh as a place of solace, a place for book- reading, religious contemplation and the patient art of muskie- fishing. He had a small cabin on the property, surrounded on three sides by a lake, to which he would repair to escape the tensions of his active days and to which he came even more often in retirement. He would grow a Hemingway-type beard, put a minnow on an orange bucktail, and cast. He told the tale many times of the 24-pound muskie that followed his line back to the boat, only to lunge out of the water, miss the bait and end up in the boat. People were skeptical, he conceded, but had to believe the fish story because he was a priest.

After a year’s sabbatical away from campus in 1987-88, Father Hesburgh began a retirement virtually as busy as his days as University President and frequent-flyer public servant—commissions and committees galore, heavy correspondence and phone calls, frequent office traffic, more speaking invitations than could ever be accepted. As the macular degeneration that has affected his eyes has grown worse, however, he has curtailed his activities, but not his intellectual curiosity. The Library of Congress supplies him with recorded books, and major stories in the New York Times and other publications are read to him. He never complains. “I just want to do what I can as long as I can and not bellyache about what I can’t do,” he tells people.

He has relished the contact with young people that retirement on a college campus brings. He has given lectures in classrooms on peace and justice issues as often as asked, and he never turned down an opportunity to say Mass in a campus residence hall. He has made it a point to chat with students on the library elevators, and he has remained optimistic about young people. “They are a positive force for good in the world,” he says. Students have had easy access to his library office, and they have taken the opportunity, sometimes to interview him for a classroom paper, sometimes to get personal advice. He is everyone’s grandfather. He continues to say Mass in his office chapel daily; liturgies after home football games have been crowded with a congregation of alumni and friends. He has most of the Mass committed to memory, and someone in attendance would read what he could not.

When he came to Notre Dame as a student in 1934, Theodore Martin Hesburgh was given the campus laundry number 00652. He still has the same number.

Selected Photos

  • Featured by <i>Time </i>magazine According to Time magazine, by 1962 Father Hesburgh had become the most influential voice in reshaping Catholic higher education in the United States.
  • A common purpose Father Hesburgh linking arms with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., while singing "We Shall Overcome" at a 1964 civil rights rally held at Chicago's Soldier Field. The Smithsonian Institution later included this image in a gallery honoring those courageous citizens who sought social justice in the 20th century.
  • Father Hesburgh and Pope John Paul II Father Hesburgh greeting Pope John Paul II in 1979. Four years later, the pope would appoint Father Hesburgh to the Pontifical Council for Culture.
  • President Kennedy and Father Hesburgh President John F. Kennedy and Father Hesburgh participating in a meeting of the Civil Rights Commission in 1961. Father Hesburgh had been a member of the commission since the Eisenhower Administration.
  • Standing at attention Dwight D. Eisenhower and Father Hesburgh review Notre Dame's ROTC unit as it welcomes the president to campus for commencement in 1960. Photo by Chet Gebert of the Elkhart Truth.