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Hesburgh photo accepted into National Gallery

Karen Langley | Wednesday, October 10, 2007

WASHINGTON – The life, legacy and inspiration of former University president Father Theodore Hesburgh were celebrated Tuesday night as the nation’s leaders joined influential members of the Notre Dame community to celebrate the acceptance of a portrait of Hesburgh into the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

As friends of Hesburgh and Notre Dame crowded an atrium in the gallery, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Notre Dame alumnus, spoke of the profound impact Hesburgh has had upon her life – both by influencing her decision to pursue graduate studies at the University and through spiritual guidance since.

“He’s this great figure who will be a great historical figure, but when we all think about him, when we all recollect him and when we all honor him, it is because he touches each and every one of us in a very special and deep and personal way,” she said.

A constant theme of the night was the degree of care and compassion Hesburgh infused in all he did.

As a student at Notre Dame, Rice recalled Hesburgh often spent time around campus talking with students and guiding them.

She described two letters he had written her – one about the death of her father, with whom Hesburgh was close, and the other about Rice’s responsibilities in conducting the nation’s diplomacy overseas, she said. In each letter, Hesburgh offered Rice exactly the spiritual solace she needed, she said.

“That kind of spiritual depth and dimension is something that makes Father Ted in his role as statesman and educator and citizen of the world very special,” Rice said.

The portrait selected for inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery shows Hesburgh in one of his most influential and frequently cited roles – as a leader in the civil rights movement. Hesburgh became a charter member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 and remained a member until he was dismissed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, who had been subject to Hesburgh’s criticism about his record on human rights.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, who served as a legal assistant to Hesburgh for the Commission on Civil Rights, praised the decision to include a portrait of his colleague and friend in the National Portrait Gallery.

“I think when we have a national treasure, it better be seen and celebrated,” he said.

Wofford, who was the CEO of AmeriCorps during the 1990s, praised Hesburgh’s moral leadership.

“His eyesight may be failing, but his spiritual and humane vision is not only strong, but it is that without which people perish,” he said.

The portrait depicts Hesburgh linking hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. at a rally at Soldier Field in Chicago. The picture, likely taken by a staff photographer of the Chicago Tribune, was taken on June 21, 1964. According to the Tribune report, Hesburgh, King and an estimated 57,000 other people were singing the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” led by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

University President Father John Jenkins spoke of the relevance of this image to the rich and varied legacy Hesburgh created during his years as a University and national leader.

“Like many powerful photographs, it depicts not only a single event but expresses what Father Ted’s life was really like,” Jenkins said. “He was always willing to join with others for what was good and just and right.”

The evening was moderated by Anne Thompson, chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News and a 1979 Notre Dame graduate.

Thompson said her deep loyalty to Hesburgh was due in part to his decision to open Notre Dame to women in 1972 – thereby allowing her to attend the University.

“The decision he made to open Notre Dame to women truly changed my life,” she said. “The education I got set me on the path I enjoy today and gave me a sense of confidence and responsibility about the world that directed me into journalism.”

Speakers during the dinner included Jenkins, Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Sister Alice Gallin, trustee emeritus of Notre Dame, Alan Simpson, former U.S. senator from Wyoming, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C., and Richard Notebaert, chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Taped remarks were played from Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and civil rights leader Andrew Young. The video, which recounted much of Hesburgh’s long career in service, was narrated by former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

Hesburgh greeted the attention with customary humility.

“When you boil it all down, each of us has to say that God has been awfully good to us,” he said. “I thank you for being some of the people I’ve been able to enjoy life with for over 90 years.”

Hesburgh was born May 25, 1917 in Syracuse, N.Y. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1939 and was ordained a priest in 1943. After receiving his doctorate from Catholic University of America in 1945, he returned to Notre Dame to teach. In 1952, at age 35, he was named the 15th president of the University of Notre Dame.

The National Portrait Gallery began to include living subjects among its collection of portraits in 2001. Though the decision to include Hesburgh’s portrait in the gallery has been made, it will be voted officially into the collection when the Gallery commission meets in December, a spokesperson for the Gallery said.