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A Hesburgh personal postscript

| Friday, March 20, 2015

With the passing of University President Emeritus, Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, numerous accolades have thus far been lavished upon his memory. None are so telling of his iconic stature as this evening’s simulcast throughout the greater campus “Michiana” area. Other than news reporting, it is the first time that all six South Bend regional television stations will simultaneously air a tribute of the same individual. The 30-minute video airing at 7:30 p.m. will honor an extraordinarily consistent life on earth that shined the light of heaven upon all.

I count myself fortunate to have personally known and worked with Hesburgh. My Notre Dame student tenure began about two-thirds into his presidency, during his strong, steady, well established leadership pace. Hesburgh’s 35-year campus legacy can be easily calculated by a few consistent numbers: upon his retirement, the overall operating budget and research budgets hovered near a 20 percent rise, the endowment rose by 40 percent and the number of faculty more than doubled while the student enrollment nearly doubled.

Upon entering Notre Dame, I knew little about Hesburgh except for his nomination by President Nixon (who then fired him) as the newly named chairman of the Civil Rights Commission. I had also heard of his 15-minute protest rule — guidelines that guaranteed against impeding students from common, ordinary activities on campus. In 1969 prior to my acceptance, Hesburgh expelled what became known as the “Notre Dame 10,” students who blocked access to campus job recruitments by the Central Intelligence Agency and Dow Chemical Company, the manufacturer of napalm, dropped at the time on villages in Vietnam. Once on campus, I also learned of Hesburgh’s open-door policy that allowed any student to visit him when his lights shown through his third floor office after sundown.

Not only did the Notre Dame 10 take advantage of that open-door policy prior to their protests, but I also visited Hesburgh late one night during my first semester of freshman year. The computer had scheduled me for 8 a.m. courses each day of the week—the two most difficult being calculus and German. Struggling to pass both at midterm after the course-dropping deadline had passed, I frantically sought ways to mitigate my dilemma. In my mind, only “Ted the Head,” as we students affectionately called him at the time, could help me.

After the security guard at the door called Hesburgh, I climbed three flights and knocked on his office door. I had practiced my spiel long enough to convince myself that I could pass muster even in court. But when the door flung open quickly and the burning full chandelier radiated a rush of light behind Hesburgh’s head, I froze as he extended his hand and asked boldly in a fully loud projection, “How do you like Notre Dame?”

“Ah, oh, great,” I weakly mumbled during a tongue-tied moment before we chatted briefly at the door. He never invited me into the office, but he told me that if I could convince one of his assistants, then it was OK with him on the means to solve my predicament. He even referred me to a woman who was from my hometown of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. I departed thinking that the odds were in my favor despite the rigid course dropping guidelines. It was my firsthand interaction with this internationally known quintessential diplomat whose analytical and organizational strengths were such an asset to Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, the best — and only option available — was to change German instructors. Fortunately, I passed both courses, and when I next saw him during my sophomore year student government participation, I reminded Hesburgh that he saved me. Our bond grew closer when I chaired our Junior Parents’ Weekend that featured Hesburgh as our speaker. He, in turn, reminded me that he had “salvaged” my “hopeless future.” Later that year when his lights glowed from the third floor one early morning after midnight, I phoned him upon my return to Lyons Hall from campaigning for student body president. He frankly scolded me during our conversation, which I still obtain on a cassette recording with my college papers, that he thought some of my campaign positions were ridiculous.

Although Hesburgh mastered the art of diplomacy, his personality lacked as much interpersonal empathy as other priests on campus who specialized in ministering to more fragile student personalities. Yet Hesburgh embodied the ultimate characteristic of a steady operational leader whose charisma endeared him to other leaders including every president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Hesburgh was both a spiritual and academic purist who marched for civil rights when it was unpopular and defended conferring a Notre Dame degree upon President Obama even with policy differences between the White House and the university.

I last spoke to Fr. Hesburgh at reunion weekend two years ago. While he appeared physically frail and nearly blind, he whispered to me that he saved my college career. For that remembrance I thank him eternally and pray for his eternal happy rewards.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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