Richard A. Sokerka
When I heard the news that Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame had died Feb. 26 at 97, like any other Notre Dame alumnus a flood of memories of this great priest came to my mind.
But were to begin?
He served as Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987 and during his tenure became an international figure. He had 16 presidential appointments — including membership of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for 15 years — and represented the Holy See on the International Atomic Energy Commission for 13 years.
His most trying time at Our Lady’s University came during the Vietnam War, when I was a student there. During that time of students’ violent protest on college campuses against the war, Notre Dame — certainly not a sea of calm — became a nationwide focal point because of its president.
Father Hesburgh issued a letter to Notre Dame students in February 1969, which was the first of its kind from a university president at that time in which he drew the line on student protests. It was widely taken as a blueprint for other college presdients to follow.
After distribution of the letter, the crisis on campus quitted down. Outsiders thought the letter alone — which took neither a hawkish or dovish approach to the war and made it clear that students had a right to protest but not to impose their will on others — made the student body toe the line. Insiders — those of us on campus — knew differently. A major factor was that “Ted the Head” — the affectionate moniker students had for Father Hesburgh — always had his door open to students well into the night. Many nights his room under the Golden Dome had its lights on until the wee hours — no student was brushed aside no matter when they came to talk to him. He was always there for us — as a priest first, a university president second.
That’s the way Father Hesburgh lived his life — relishing being a priest and downplaying his role as an internationally renowned figure.
In his homily at his golden jubliee Mass in 1993, he made no mention of his many meetings with world leaders. Instead, he focused on his calling as a priest — totally committed to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. He spoke with great joy of being able to offer the sacrifice of the Mass each day, to administer the sacraments and to preach.
He was a good and faithful servant of the Lord for his entire 97 years and his 71 years as a priest. As Father John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president said upon learning that Father Hesburgh had returned to the Lord: “Notre Dame has lost a piece of its heart today but Father Ted’s spirit lives on among Notre Dame and among the millions of lives he touched around the world.”