Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh died Feb. 26 at the age of 97. He was one of the most influential priests in the United States and wielded more influence than most bishops.
Hesburgh was named president of the University of Notre Dame in 1952. He led the university through the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. When he retired in 1987, he had served 35 years as president, a unique accomplishment for anyone in that era. Under his leadership the university grew from a small college of 4,070 students famous for its football teams into the premier Catholic university in the United States, with more than double the number of students. The university budget grew from $9.7 million to $176.6 million while the endowment expanded from $9 million to $350 million.
But it was not only at Notre Dame that his impact was felt. His shadow fell across many of the major national and international movements in the last half of the 20th century.
One of the jokes on the Notre Dame campus during his tenure was that the difference between God and Hesburgh was that while God is everywhere, Hesburgh was everywhere but Notre Dame.
Among other achievements, he received more than 100 honorary degrees and held 16 presidential appointments, tackling major social issues including civil rights, immigration reform, peaceful uses of atomic energy, campus unrest, treatment of Vietnam draft evaders and development in the world’s poorest nations.
He was a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when it was created in 1957 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He chaired the body from 1969 until 1972 when President Richard Nixon dismissed him over his criticism of the administration’s civil rights record. He helped establish the Centre for Civil & Human Rights at Notre Dame Law School.
Hesburgh served four popes, including three as the Vatican’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 1956 to 1970. Blessed Paul VI asked him to build the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, which the university continues to operate. He also served as head of the Vatican delegation attending the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ human rights declaration in Teheran, Iran, in 1968.
Among the many tributes Hesburgh received were the following:
— Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington: “He was always extraordinarily kind to everybody. I was a young priest at the time (of our first meeting) and he was as thoughtful and as gracious to me as he was to the major figures who were there and sometimes demanding attention. I will never forget that personal touch and that personal kindness. It was a mark of his life and it went hand in hand with an extraordinary ability to lead and to guide the organizations he played so often so key and vital a role.”
— Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: “The key to the success of the civil rights movement was to keep it from being a radical leftist movement, and recognize that it was truly a movement coming out of the Judaeo-Christian, U.S. Constitutional tradition of justice. Well, nobody could represent all of those forces like Father Ted could. And he did it in such a quiet, unassuming, non-judgmental way that when he was with you, you didn’t have to worry about who was against you.”
— Former President George H.W. Bush: “His reputation as one who stood for and worked for world peace goes far beyond any political boundary, far beyond the boundary of the United States of America. He was a true man of peace.”
Hesburgh has left a legacy that changes boundaries and overcomes ignorance, prejudice and small-mindedness. His work is still not done, but he has shown us the way.