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Reading to a ‘Living Legend’

| Sunday, March 1, 2015

The late Fr. Theodore Hesburgh enjoyed cigars and reading newspapers in the afternoon.

He continued to smoke cigars every day, but once his eyesight began to fade, students would read newspapers to him in his office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library.

Senior Beth Spesia was one of these readers. She began working her freshman year at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the founding of which was inspired by Fr. Hesburgh’s work. To return the favor, the Institute sent one student to read to Fr. Ted every afternoon.

“I started working at the Kroc Institute my freshman year in the fall,” Spesia said. “I didn’t know this at the time, but a part of the job is that office sends one student every afternoon to read to Fr. Hesburgh. Since the Kroc … [has] a really strong tie to Fr. Hesburgh, they send someone every day. As a first-semester freshman, I started going once a week to read to him. I knew Fr. Hesburgh was a big deal, but after a few times going, I realized I didn’t really know enough about him, so I remember getting ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ in the library. It was a very meta experience, [reading] ‘God, Country, Notre Dame’ in the Hesburgh Library. It was a very Notre Dame experience.”

After the news of Fr. Hesburgh’s death Thursday night, Spesia said she “had a moment” in the McGlinn Chapel to herself and reflected on the time she had spent with the Holy Cross priest.

“When I heard the news, I was by myself,” Spesia said. “It was obviously really sad, and I just felt like there was a sadness everyone on campus was experiencing.

“I also immediately felt so grateful that I had all of these hours I had spent with him. It just kind of hit me hard at first.”

Spesia recounted the many hours spent with the former University president.

“The first time I went, I was really nervous,” Spesia said. “I knew I was going to read for a very important person. At that time back when I started freshman year — I would read close to three hours, which can be kind of tiring. I was nervous that I wouldn’t do a good job reading, and I was nervous that I would mispronounce countries that I should know how to pronounce or something.”

Although Spesia was corrected many times over her four years reading, she said, Hesburgh’s corrections always came from a good place and were valuable to her.

“I did get corrected on some of my pronunciations, but it was a good learning experience,” Spesia said. “There were sometimes that I thought he would be asleep — I would be an hour and a half in, page 10 of the New York Times — when he would awake out of nowhere and correct me. He would say this is the correct way to pronounce it, it means this and he would give me a definition. It was great. I loved it.”

Spesia said she was definitely not cut out for handling Hesburgh’s cigars, however.

“One time Melanie [Chapleau], his secretary, was busy doing something so he asked me if I would light his cigar,” Spesia said. “I don’t think I did the best job of it. I was trying to angle myself, I couldn’t get the lighter to work and it was just a disaster. So I think it was best that I just stuck to my reading.”

Sophomore Madeleine Paulsen, another one of Fr. Hesburgh’s readers, said that she learned how to cut and light cigars from her time reading to Fr. Hesburgh.

“He usually had a cigar already, but if it went out, if he wanted a new one, or on the rare days when he didn’t have one originally, I would get him a new one,” Paulsen said. “Fr. Ted actually taught me how to cut and light his cigars, as it was something I had never done before last summer.”

The literature that the students would read aloud was always the same: The Observer, the New York Times and if he was up for it, Time Magazine, Spesia said.

“He always liked to start off with The Observer, he would say, ‘We’ve got to figure out what’s going on around here first before we figure out what’s going on in the world,’” Spesia said. “I always thought it was really cool that he still wanted to hear what professors were given awards and what lectures were going on. So I would usually read the main stories of The Observer and the some of the letters to the editor and the editorials.

“Sometimes when we would finish the New York Times, we would read Time Magazine. The one thing that I really liked about reading to him was that he really knew what he liked to hear, so if I was reading a story and he had gotten enough out of it, he would say, ‘That’s enough, let’s go to the next one.’ Sometimes he would ask me what I thought about things. At first, when I was a freshman, this was very intimidating. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Fr. Hesburgh wants to know what I think about the Middle East, what am I supposed to say now?’ But I definitely got more comfortable talking to him.”

It was in Fr. Ted’s nature to make people feel comfortable, Spesia said.

“Everyone who meets him right away I think would agree with me that he puts people at ease like no one else,” she said. “He is — was — just a kind, gentle soul that even for a scared freshman, I felt that right away I had an ease in that maybe I wasn’t expecting.”

Junior Kerry Walsh, another one of Fr. Hesburgh’s readers, said that he truly cared about every person that walked into his office.

“My absolute favorite part of reading to Fr. Ted was always at the very end, when he told me to stand in front of him to be blessed,” she said. “He would ask God to watch over me, and told me that I would be in his prayers. I constantly left his office in awe of how lucky I was to spend so much time with him.”

On football weekends, many people would stop into Fr. Hesburgh’s office in an attempt to meet with him, Walsh said.

“In these moments, I was acutely aware of how lucky I was to be with Fr. Ted,” she said. “Some people just wanted to meet him once in their life, and I got to see him and talk with him every week. People often brought medals or jewelry to be blessed by Fr. Ted, and I felt incredibly privileged to be blessed by him every week.”

Reading often turned into discussing, reminiscing and other stories, Spesia said.

“He’d comment lot on the news,” she said. “Some days he was chattier than others, but sometimes it would be commenting on the news, and sometimes it would be reflecting. Something I would read to him would jog a memory about a trip that he took once, and he would tell me about it.”

Fr. Hesburgh was especially vocal about the Iraq War, the American government’s struggle with bipartisanship and race relations.

“The last four years with a lot of the news that were about Iraq, he would talk about the times he had traveled there,” Spesia said. “Anytime there was a story about the conflict between the Democrats and Republicans, he would get a little worked up about it because his whole thing was that we need to get through it and work together. So that would get him going.

“He would bring up issues related to the work he did in the Civil Rights movement with things that are relevant today like the Ferguson incident. He commented on that a few times. He was sad about the situation, and he talked about how all the work that had done for Civil Rights to give people a voice.”

Spesia studied in Chile in the spring 2014 semester. Upon her return this past fall, she noticed that Fr. Hesburgh was different. However, she said reading seemed to get a positive reaction from Fr. Ted, and it appeared to be helpful to him.

“So I would just say — from the fall of my junior year until when I came back the fall of my senior year — he just seemed older,” Spesia said. “He just seemed more tired. There were some days he wouldn’t chat as much while we were reading. He was always really sharp — he was still having visitors, even this semester — so I think hearing the news every day he enjoyed it in a way because it would make him think of stories and keep him up to date on what was going on in the world. So when he kind of started slowing — I could just tell, and I think other people could tell too — that he just seemed slower.”

From her the start of her freshman year in August 2011 to now, Spesia noted a shift in her interactions with Fr. Hesburgh, but she also noted that he remained true to his values and opinions, especially on education.

“Our conversations definitely changed throughout the years,” Spesia said. “This past year he was slowing down a bit. He always would ask me about my major because I think he would just be refreshing his memory. He would ask, ‘Who are you again, and what’s your major?’ I would tell him the Program of Liberal Studies, and he would say, ‘That’s the best one we have,’ which is really great.”

Spesia hadn’t read to Hesburgh since Feb. 10 because of his failing health and the cold weather, she said.

“I haven’t gone in in the past a couple of weeks because he hadn’t gone into the office because it was too cold, she said. “I think he was getting a little sick too, and it would just be too dangerous to go out in the cold. That was a bummer, missing a few weeks, because reading to him every week was always the highlight of my week.

“It was just a nice routine. I would go in there and it wouldn’t matter what other stresses I had going on in my life, it was just this peaceful sort of relaxing time, where I would get into this rhythm of reading and being able to have conversation. I really enjoyed the part of the week where I got to see him. Even before he passed away, I was like, ‘I hope next week it’s not this cold, so I can go read to him.’”

Walsh said Fr. Hesburgh’s legacy will be the kindness that he extended towards others.

“The feeling of meeting of befriending Fr. Ted is truly incredible,” Walsh said. “For me, the kindness and attentiveness Fr. Ted extended to me made me strive to be a better person. It may sound corny, but when you meet Fr. Ted, you kind of feel like you’re meeting the next closest thing to God.”

Fr. Hesburgh was a world-renowned activist and scholar, Walsh said, but he was first and foremost a friend.

“I think that’s the beauty of Fr. Ted,” Walsh said. “Despite his lofty achievements and celeb status, he was always a true friend to all he met. I can’t ever thank him enough for his contributions to Notre Dame, to the study of peace, to the United States — but most importantly, I can’t thank him enough for being a friend.”

Spesia said she values her time with Fr. Hesburgh above any other experience at Notre Dame because of what she learned from him. She said although she was only reading to him a couple hours every week, it meant a great deal to her, and she took away a lot from those meetings.

“I guess I really just got to observe how much he cared about others, about Notre Dame, about individual students who had come to see him, about the world really,” Spesia said. “That was the nature of our discussions, about issues going on in the world. He was just so giving of his heart to the Notre Dame community that I think there’s a reason that he’s so beloved by students even of my generation because people still felt this connection to him that they could go into visit. 

“He’s a living legend. I always was really in awe of him — and going into his office, it’s hard not be, there’s pictures up of presidents, awards left and right — but getting to know him in such a regular, routine way, and the time we had together when I would be reading, I got to see what a truly great person he was outside of all of the amazing things he had done and all the awards he had won, and for that I am truly grateful.”

Associate News Editor Kayla Mullen contributed to this report.

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