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Nearly 91, Hesburgh finds time for visitors

Jay Fitzpatrick | Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sitting in his office on the 13th floor of the library named for him, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh has a busy schedule of meetings and appointments every day.

He sits with students, alumni and trustees – anyone who is willing to schedule time to meet with him. He reads – actually listens to books on tape or has students read to him due to his failing eyesight – and tries to stay up to date on current events. He fulfills his daily priestly duties and obligations.

But, as Hesburgh put it himself, his life is much simpler. All he does is “show up.”

Hesburgh took the expression from former Dean of the College of Arts and Letters Fr. Charlie Sheedy, now deceased, who said, “Most of life is just showing up.”

Now, as he approaches his 91st birthday on May 25, he makes sure to do just that every day.

While Hesburgh shows up every day, each day is always different from the last.

“I have very little schedule except that people make dates with Melanie and I have three or four sheets every day with people coming in,” he said.

These sheets of paper usually contain two names of people – written in large enough print for Hesburgh to be able to read them – who scheduled appointments with him. In one day, these appointments were so varied as to include an alumnus and his daughter, a senior at Notre Dame, a member of the Notre Dame football team and three students who won lunch with Hesburgh at the annual Breen-Phillips Food Auction.

These daily appointments are run by Hesburgh’s secretary and administrative assistant Melanie Chapleau, his assistant for around 20 years. Chapleau does more than manage his affairs; additionally, Hesburgh said, she “keeps me out of trouble.”

But, like most senior citizens, Hesburgh has some heath issues, but nothing serious. He recently had dental work done to fix 10 of his teeth, which makes eating more difficult for him. He can still eat foods with softener in them, but mostly because he is able to swallow them whole.

The other issue is his eyes. Hesburgh has macular degeneration in both eyes, making him completely blind in the right eye and half-blind in the left.

This condition most affects Hesburgh in his personal time, when he can partake in one of his life’s passions: reading. Three years ago, Hesburgh hired a student, then-freshman Lisa Russ of Farley Hall, to be his personal reader. She was volunteering at Holy Cross House, where her mother Mary Pat Russ works, and was eating lunch with the priests there. She sat with Hesburgh, who asked her to read to him – something she has done every week since then.

Even though Russ started off as a one-woman operation, she enlisted her friends from Farley, current junior Paula Alfonso and graduating senior Casey Bouskill, to join her in reading to Hesburgh.

“I used to read for three hours every Sunday, but that gets pretty tiring, so I had them [Alfonso and Bouskill] come in and we each do an hour every Sunday,” Russ said.

The most important things for the students to read for him are the New York Times, The Observer and Time Magazine to stay up-to-date on current events across the world and at the University.

“I like to be up-to-date. News I can get on T.V., but for real news I go to New York Times, The Observer [and] Time Magazine,” he said.

Hesburgh’s goal is to have the week’s newspapers and Time Magazine read by Sunday, regardless of the rest of his schedule.

He also reads books of various genres, but mostly he enjoys history. Russ said he receives a lot of books in the mail and always reads them.

Hesburgh said he has more than 200 books in his personal library signed by their authors, including “To Kill a Mockingbird” signed by Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee.

“He said she came to Notre Dame for a lecture and she only signed one copy and it was for him,” Alfonso said.

Even though the students mostly read him newspapers, Hesburgh has his own method of reading books. He has a large collection of books on tape and a large variety of audio equipment – such as tape decks and CD players – for listening to them.

Bosukill said his favorite genres are World War II and the Civil Rights movement, in which Hesburgh was involved at the national level from 1957-1972.

In addition to the week’s news and whatever books he can find, Hesburgh makes a point to answer the daily mail.

“By the time I get out of here at night, all the mail that has come in that day has been answered,” he said.

Hesburgh’s readers all agreed their time spent with him has been one of their favorite experiences at Notre Dame, mostly because of the little things he does for them.

Alfonso said she could not think of a specific favorite memory, but instead enjoyed the conversations they have had.

“Sometimes I feel I learn more from him just during that hour talking with him than during my classes that week,” she said.

While Hesburgh carries an aura about him due to his years of public service to the United States and the University, Russ, Alfonso and Bouskill see him in a much different light.

Hesburgh’s three readers described him as a “grandfather figure” at Notre Dame.

“We see him in such a comfortable atmosphere,” Russ said. “Just him in his office, smoking his cigar, drinking his afternoon coffee. So it’s really nice, but he’s still really professional and has this air about him.”

Bouskill agreed, saying he is actually very funny and can throw out wisecracks when appropriate during her time with him.

“He knows when to use humor and when to throw in a great zinger,” she said.

Alfonso said that, for all his brilliance and wisdom, there are still some things he does not know. She described a time when she was reading a story in Time Magazine to him that mentioned spandex.

“He’s the most brilliant man I’ve ever met and spoken with… and it’s just so funny that probably the smartest man in the world is like ‘What’s spandex?'” she said.

Hesburgh also blesses the readers whenever they leave – just not always in English. He is fluent in seven languages, but is manageable in 12.

Regardless of the language, Russ said she greatly appreciates being blessed by Hesburgh each week.

“Every time we leave, he blesses us and that will definitely stay with me,” she said.

Celebrating the daily Mass is when Hesburgh’s eyesight most affects him. As a priest, he must celebrate Mass and pray a different prayer every day, something that he is unable to do with his eyesight. To this end, he uses Chapleau or other aides to help with the Mass.

“I have the Mass by heart but it changes every day and I can’t remember the whole year. So I have Mass, I have somebody alongside me, read me the parts like the Epistle and the Gospel that change every day and I can do the parts I know by heart,” he said.

As for the daily priest’s prayer, Hesburgh said he prays three Rosaries a day to Mary, the Mother of God, because, as he said, “I don’t need to read to do the Rosary.”

Bouskill said these daily, private Masses in Hesburgh’s personal chapel in his office are her favorite memories from her time at Notre Dame.

“To have that homily and to hear his thoughts one-on-one is just irreplaceable,” she said. “It’s much more of a conversation, but he has a really great way of relating what he knows through his faith into that pragmatic action and love for humans.”

Even with his failing eyesight, Hesburgh has managed to keep his priestly obligations. He said he has missed only three Masses during his almost 65 years as a priest, excluding days when Mass is not said such as Good Friday.

“Overall, I would say I have said thousands of more Masses than days I have been a priest,” Hesburgh said. “Mass is the most important thing in my life.”

This feat is even more impressive when considering the things he has done, especially since his retirement. Shortly after he left office in 1987, he and Fr. Edward Joyce, his executive vice president for 35 years, went on a 16,500 mile road trip across the United States and Canada, saying Mass every day in their van.

Hesburgh said the trip was one of his favorite experiences, and that his favorite places they visited were Alaska, “because not many people have been there,” and the Rocky Mountains.

Even though he has traveled across the United States and the world, one of Hesburgh’s favorite places is still Notre Dame. When asked where his favorite place on campus was, he jumped in before the question was finished to answer, simply, “the Grotto.”

Before Hesburgh moved to Holy Cross House, the residence for retired members of the Congregation of Holy Cross priests at the University, he lived in a room overlooking the Grotto in Corby Hall. He said he asks his drivers to stop there whenever possible while on his way to or from his office.

Hesburgh’s love of the Grotto started when he first got to Notre Dame. When he was studying for the priesthood at the University, Hesburgh lived in the now-demolished Holy Cross Seminary, which stood near where Columba Hall now stands. Even though it has such special meaning to him, Hesburgh could not remember his first visit to the Grotto because he has been there so often.

“Every day coming to any classroom building on campus I went by the Grotto on my way,” he said.

One main reason for Hesburgh’s love of the Grotto is its attachment to the Virgin Mary, who Hesburgh believes has always had an important influence at the University.

“I think we always must have special dedication to Mary, the Mother of God,” he said. “I think all the blessings we’ve had as an institution are because the University is named for Mary. This is without a doubt the greatest Catholic university of all time and we should be proud of the name ‘Notre Dame.'”