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viewpoint

Bill Dwyre on Fr. Hesburgh

| Sunday, March 1, 2015

Not many people remember details about walking across that stage when somebody hands you your college diploma. Especially not when that handoff was made 49 years ago.

Jim Hayden does.

It was an even more special moment for Hayden, a kid from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, who had scrambled his way through Notre Dame with so many side jobs he could have received a second degree in survival. That’s because Hayden always had this special admiration for the school president, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.

In those days, to all of us living the golden years under the Golden Dome, Hesburgh was bigger than life. He was also one of the first people we could easily and comfortably identify with one name and have no fear of being misunderstood. Well before we had Pele and Kobe, we had Ted.

Hayden respected what Hesburgh stood for. He always got the feeing that Hesburgh’s heart was in the right place, that being the good of mankind and, close behind, the good of his students. Hesburgh was accessible enough to have a nodding acquaintance with Hayden, which he undoubtedly had with half the student body.

Still, Hayden was sure he had a special place in Hesburgh’s heart when he crossed the stage that day in June, 1966, and as he took the diploma, Hesburgh looked at him and said, “Finally, huh?”

You tend to cherish those moments in life, even though, as you get older, you realize, as Hayden did, that our Ted wasn’t being personal or selectively friendly. He was just being a priestly smart aleck.

That was just one of his many delights.

Hayden never forgot. Some 25 years later, at one of those class reunions where nobody really wants to go because everybody is 30 pounds heavier and at least several pay raises below where they expected to be, he sought out Hesburgh, who greeted him like they had had dinner recently and argued over the merits of Plato.

“You really don’t change much,” Hesburgh told Hayden.

To which Hayden, now emboldened by adulthood, replied, “You don’t either.”

And so, it had begun. Hayden returned to campus occasionally and would see Hesburgh. Hesburgh, who could see less and less with each ensuing year, always somehow saw, and recognized, Hayden.

Hesburgh became more than mentor. He became inspiration.

Hayden is a Hollywood screen writer. He is very good at his craft, has done well selling options on various screen plays for years.

He decided that the George Gipp story was a good topic. During one of his trips to Notre Dame to research that, he visited Hesburgh.

“We talked for an hour, maybe more,”  Hayden said. “His secretary kept coming in to remind him he had other people with appointments waiting. But he just kept talking. I remember we got off into space, astronomy.

“Finally, he said, ‘You know, Jim, that Gipp story sounds good, but why don’t you write a movie about me.’”

So Hayden has. For the moment, others can’t. Hayden got the rights to the story of Hesburgh’s life, in writing, from Hesburgh.

That makes it worth noting for Notre Dame alums with deep affection for Hesburgh — there are hundreds of thousands — and deep pockets that there is a screen play, by a pro and a fellow Domer, ready to go.

Hayden is certainly open to that, although his affection for Hesburgh and sadness at his death hid the obvious from him, until his old roommate called to interview him for this story.

That obvious is that Hesburgh’s death may increase the likelihood of Hayden’s movie being made. Right now, Hayden has less inclination toward pondering business opportunites and more toward the special memories he had — we all have — for Hesburgh.

“He had this pure, heroic heart,” Hayden said. “When I first told him what I do, that I’m a writer, he asked what I wrote about. I’m not exactly sure why I said it, but I said that I write about justice.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Good for you.’

“My entire association with him was nothing but gratifying.”

Hesburgh read the screenplay, entitled, appropriately, “Hesburgh.”

“He told me I made him a bigger hero than he deserved to be,” Hayden said.

The life of Ted Hesburgh now awaits its close-up on the silver screen.

The old newspaper hack typing away here, who has edited 20 million words in his career and written perhaps another 10 million, has read it and says it’s good.

Hayden even has a leading man picked out.

“George Clooney,” he said. “Same kind of speech patterns, same sense of humor.”

There are a million stories in the naked city. Roughly 999,900 don’t deserve to be made into a movie. The story of Ted Hesburgh, heart and soul of Notre Dame, is one of the other 100.

Bill Dwyre

class of 1966

L.A. Times sports columnist and former sports editor

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