Father Theodore Hesburgh Is Notre Dame's Most Durable Triple Threat: President, Priest and Activist
The distinguished-looking 60-year-old bounds out of bed in his Washington hotel room, does 300 jogging steps in place and 40 back bends, then showers and shaves. He could be on Rockefeller Foundation business, since he is its board chairman, or on a Chase Manhattan Bank assignment, since he is one of its directors, or on a mission for the Overseas Development Council, which he heads. But this morning he is on his way to the White House to have breakfast with President Carter and the people he calls “Zbig, Cy, Linowitz and Bunker.”
First he goes to his luggage—a fat black doctor’s bag—and takes out a collapsible silver-and-gilt chalice, some candles, a worn manila folder containing red vestments, carefully folded white robes, a small container of hosts and a hip flask of sacramental wine. Then, taking his missal, Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, confidant of Popes and Presidents, stars and students, celebrates the Roman Catholic Mass.
Hesburgh is—and it’s tempting to add incidentally—the president of the University of Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind. and has been for 25 years. But while he is a respected figure in academia, his extracurricular (and extraecclesiastical) activities have made him a national figure.
He came close, in fact, to joining “Zbig” and the others in the Carter administration, reportedly being first choice for the State Department’s top post in Latin American affairs. He turned Carter down because of commitments to his school’s $130 million fund-raising campaign. But he said no without alienating the President—Carter was commencement speaker at Notre Dame last May.
Some would say that it is not much harder to get the U.S. President to South Bend than it is to keep Father Ted there. (“What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh?” a campus joke goes. “God is everywhere; Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.”)
When he is on campus, his schedule is usually jammed. At night he holes up in his modest office for meetings, reading and writing, often working until 3 or 4 a.m., with breaks for fruit juice or Campbell’s soup (Noodle-O’s is a current favorite).
The son of an executive with Pittsburgh Plate Glass in Syracuse, N.Y., Hesburgh decided by the time he was 4 that he wanted to be a priest. “I never went through the fireman stage,” he says. His early religious leanings did not prevent him from playing football, hunting, fishing or, according to family legend, breaking his sister Mary’s nose in a scuffle one night when he sneaked in late and she thought he was a burglar. A Jesuit priest and family friend wanted him to enter a seminary at 13 but his parents refused. “If he loses his vocation,” his mother said, “he never really had it.” Another priest advised the young man: “Have as many dates as the rest of your class, go to as many dances, have fun. Just don’t do anything you’ll be ashamed of when you become a priest.”
Ted was a regular in Holy Rosary High School theatrical productions and in one Passion Play portrayed Jesus. “I remember that one!” he laughs. “I had to practically memorize the whole New Testament.” After Notre Dame (1934-37) he went to Gregorian University in Rome and received a degree in philosophy in 1940. He was ordained in 1943 and immediately volunteered as a military chaplain but was sent to Catholic University of America in Washington to get his doctorate.
While studying he served as chaplain at a reform school where, he recalls, “An old guard took me aside and said, ‘Remember: ain’t no kids born bastards. It’s the parents to blame.’ I learned a lot there.”
After completing the doctorate in theology he wanted to become a missionary overseas but instead was assigned to Notre Dame. He taught religion and was chaplain to the huge corps of World War II veterans on campus. By 1948 he was chairman of his department; by 1949 he was an executive vice-president of the school and in 1952—at age 35—he became its president.
Since the founding of Notre Dame in 1842, its emphasis on teaching Catholicism first and academic subjects second had not done much for its intellectual reputation. The school’s most famous faculty member was the late football coach Knute Rockne. Its noted alumni were names like Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart and the “Four Horsemen”—all football players from famous “Fighting Irish” teams that fed the public notion of Notre Dame as one big chapel surrounded by playing fields.
Hesburgh did not exactly de-emphasize football. But while faithfully attending most home games, he has occupied himself more with raising academic standards and boosting the school’s endowment from $8 million to $120 million. (“Show me the top ten endowments and I’ll show you the top ten universities,” he says.) Edmund Stephan, who is chairman of Notre Dame’s lay-dominated board of trustees and who sits next to Hesburgh in the football stadium, says, “He’s always turning to me in the middle of a play to ask, ‘What do you think about the situation in Yugoslavia?’ ”
Nobody has ever accused Hesburgh of hiding in an ivory steeple. As early as 1950 he worked with a Ford Foundation committee studying university curricula. In 1954 he was invited to join the board of the National Science Foundation. (Science has always been one of his major interests and President Johnson asked him to head NASA.) In 1957 President Eisenhower appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a watchdog organization in which for 15 years he did most of the barking.
Despite the fact that a lot of Hesburgh’s criticism on race had been aimed at government inaction, Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, in 1964. Five years later Richard Nixon, with whom he became close during the vice-presidential years, named him Civil Rights Commission chairman.
Hesburgh still says, “Racism is the key problem in America,” but adds, “During the ’60s we made more progress than any civilized country in the world has ever made. Overnight we went from apartheid as unbending as South Africa’s to complete equality. One day you couldn’t go to the beach, eat in restaurants, go to school, even to the cemetery. The next day you could.” Under Nixon, however, Hesburgh frequently charged that progress in civil rights had slowed down. He also vigorously opposed the invasion of Cambodia in 1970. Nixon fired him in 1972.
At the time Hesburgh said he felt that H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman and their cohorts had been responsible both for the civil rights slowdown and for his own dismissal. To this day he has never blamed Nixon. Even of Watergate he says only, “The real tragedy was that these were educated men who had not learned the difference between right and wrong, the difference between beautiful and ugly.”
Hesburgh did not escape criticism himself. When he left the Civil Rights Commission, one Nixon supporter, a Notre Dame alumnus and member of the New York State Human Rights Appeal Board named Albert Pacetta, attacked the priest in an article in the New York Times. Hesburgh, he wrote, “has gotten a lot of mileage out of his religious uniform and title as president of Notre Dame University and he has sought to take advantage of it by frequently making ill-considered and fuzzily conceived pronouncements as to matters concerning the everyday problems and realities of life about which the good Father knows very little.” Hesburgh also became a target by joining the board of the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1972. Accused of cozying up to business by some liberals, he also angered some Chase shareholders because he owned no stock himself. (When Chase Chairman David Rockefeller pointed out that the priest had renounced material wealth, one critic snapped, “We stockholders have not taken a vow of poverty.”)
On campus Hesburgh courted possible trouble with the church by making Notre Dame coed and dropping compulsory attendance at Mass. He also backed a faculty member who disagreed with Pope Paul’s encyclical against artificial contraception in 1968. Nonetheless, Hesburgh is popular with the Catholic hierarchy. This is due partly to shrewd political instincts; in 1960 he awarded an honorary degree to Giovanni Cardinal Montini, three years before he became Pope Paul VI. For 13 years he was official Vatican spokesman on the International Atomic Energy Agency. Says his bishop, William E. McManus, “Father Hesburgh has combined his dual roles [of priest and public servant] not schizophrenically but compatibly. He is Catholic in the best sense of the word.”
Hesburgh has, inevitably, neglected the amenities in his disciplined life, but not totally ignored them. He still sleeps in the tiny room and on the same iron cot he used when he came to Notre Dame in 1945, and has said, almost proudly, “I don’t have a nickel in the world.” Yet he comes up regularly with a Cuban cigar or bottle of Grand Marnier and friends treat him to vacations like last winter’s camera safari in Kenya.
He has described celibacy as “right for me,” even if it might not be for “some priest on the Amazon.” But he has a substantial family life that involves his brother and two sisters and their families. (Six nieces and nephews are Notre Dame students.)
He has also taken a special interest in seven former students, six of them children of an Irish-American family living in South America. He carries pictures of them in his wallet and can tick off “my 23 grandkids” on his big, meaty fingers. Hesburgh is also friends with well-known personalities. Ann Landers came to him for advice and sympathy the day her column announcing her divorce appeared in 1975.
There is, finally, his sometimes turbulent relationship with his students. In 1969, at the height of disturbances on U.S. campuses, he announced that any demonstrator substituting “force for rational persuasion” would be given 15 minutes to stop, then suspended from school or arrested.
Today the student body, 95 percent Catholic, is quiet. The women wear skirts and bras. The men dress neatly and keep their hair short. Any student who can overcome his awe of Hesburgh knows he can probably meet face to face with the president, even if he has to clamber up the fire escape outside his office, as many of them do, at 2 or 3 in the morning. (“If you rap on his window, you know he’ll come down and let you in,” one says.)
“They can have at me any time,” Hesburgh says affably. “The other day a boy collared me as I was on my way to an important meeting. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘I have a problem.’ ” Hesburgh replied: “That’s what I’m here for.”