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Alumnae to publish Hesburgh birthday letters

Meghan Wons | Friday, September 15, 2006

What started out as a birthday present for University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh from the “women of Notre Dame” is being turned into a book by a few ambitious and extremely grateful Notre Dame alumnae.

After the first ever Notre Dame alumnae-only event, a luncheon, was held in Chicago in May, Ann Therese Darin Palmer, Esq. ’73 BA and ’75 MBA joined with four other Notre Dame alumna to form the Thanking Father Ted Foundation. Palmer is president of the foundation.

The foundation is currently working on a book celebrating and documenting the history of coeducation at Notre Dame, highlighting “Father Ted’s” role in bringing women to Notre Dame.

Palmer said she was pulled onto the steering committee for the luncheon event last March by Illinois Appellate Court Justice and Notre Dame graduate Shelia O’Brien.

The Alumni Association decided to bring alumnae together at the luncheon at the Chicago Club on May 11 to discuss how wishes that were expressed in a survey that had been issued to Notre Dame Business College alumnae could be best fulfilled.

The steering committee for this event asked Hesburgh to give the keynote address because “if it hadn’t been for Father Ted, we wouldn’t have had our degrees,” Palmer said, in reference to Hesburgh’s leadership in making Notre Dame coeducational.

“When Father Ted agreed to come speak to us, I suggested that we do something that, to my knowledge, hadn’t been done before – thank Father Ted,” Palmer said.

As Father Hesburgh’s 89th birthday fell just a couple of weeks after the luncheon, Palmer thought a collection of thank you letters from Notre Dame alumnae would be a perfect birthday present, she said.

She requested the Alumni Association e-mail all of Notre Dame’s undergraduate alumnae, about 17,000 women, and ask them to send her letters thanking Hesburgh for the gift of co-education and telling him the difference that a Notre Dame education has made in their lives.

At the luncheon, the women in attendance surprised Hesburgh with a birthday cake to celebrate his 89th birthday and four three-ring binders filled with letters of thanks from alumnae, Palmer said.

“Your strong leadership and ethics have served as an unfailing example for all of us. And we, the loyal sons and daughters, are especially glad of every opportunity to see you and hear your words of wisdom. You are a beacon of love for the Notre Dame family,” one anonymous Notre Dame alumna wrote.

Another wrote to Hesburgh, “Thank you for having the vision and the courage so many years ago to break the mold and allow women to attend Notre Dame … we are a powerful, spiritual, and responsible group who cherish life and seek justice and truth.”

In her May 16th column in the Daily Herald, Notre Dame alumna Eileen O’Daday wrote that Hesburgh, upon receiving the gift of thank you letters, said, “You have made this old guy proud – of what you are doing and what you have done.”

“Two weeks before the luncheon, I suddenly realized that we had the makings for a great book. I realized the letters had a lot of significant things that other members of the Notre Dame family might enjoy reading,” Palmer said.

Palmer joined with four other Notre Dame alumnae: O’Brien, Esq. ’77 and ’80 LW; Anne Giffels, ’81 BBA; Julie Webb, Esq. ’73 BA; and Paulita Pike ’93 BA and ’96LW, to incorporate the Thanking Father Ted Foundation. They are currently applying to the IRS for tax-exempt status and establishing an Advisory Board of ND women alumnae who have achieved significantly in their careers, Darin Palmer said.

Two of Hesburgh’s nieces are on the Advisory Board, she said.

“We intend to publish a book with the letters next year in conjunction with Father Ted’s 90th birthday, which coincidentally is also the 35th anniversary of co-education,” Palmer said.

“With the proceeds from the book’s sales and other cash contributions from alumnae, our goal is to raise $100,000 to endow a scholarship in Father Ted’s name as his 90th birthday present from the alumnae.”

Palmer is currently working in the archives to get photos and other memorabilia for the book.

“The support we’ve received for our project both from past ND administrators and the current administration is phenomenal . . . they’ve agreed to submit their reminiscences on what it was like to take ND co-ed for the book,” Palmer said.

Palmer described herself and other early Notre Dame alumnae as “co-ed pioneers.”

“If we don’t record our experiences, they’ll be lost to history,” she said.

As the first woman to earn her Notre Dame undergraduate degree, Mary Davey Bliley received her diploma from Notre Dame in 1972 by a twist of fate.

Bliley said she began her college career at Saint Mary’s in 1968 as a math and history major. In 1970, when there were serious talks of a Notre Dame-Saint Mary’s merger, Bliley transferred to Notre Dame and began taking classes in the business school.

When the Notre Dame-Saint Mary’s merger was called off on Dec. 1, 1971, Bliley was in a tough spot. She had been working toward her Bachelor’s of Business Administration at Notre Dame, a major not offered at Saint Mary’s at the time.

“I went to the head of the business school, Dean Raymond – I didn’t know what to do. I had no school to graduate from,” Bliley said. “Dean Raymond told me they’d take care of me. He did, and he called me into his office in April of ’71 and told me that I would graduate from Notre Dame.”

Bliley said she will be writing the foreword for the book and will focus on “the vision of Father Hesburgh.”

She said she hopes the book will enable current and future Notre Dame women “to see the vision of the person that made it all happen – that they understand the history and vision behind co-education at Notre Dame.”

Darin Palmer is accepting letters for the book through Oct. 15. Alumnae who would like to participate can contact her at ATpalmer42@aol.com or call (847) 234-9223 for further details.