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Hesburgh honored with resolution

Jenn Metz | Monday, December 3, 2007

Over the years, University President Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh has been bestowed with many honors – including the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest awards given to civilians.

Now, after the work of Congressman Joe Donnelly from the 2nd District of Indiana, a congressional resolution can be added to the list.

The House resolution – H.RES.687 – passed on a voice vote with 103 co-sponsors on Oct. 9.

According to the Library of Congress Web Site, the resolution recognizes “Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C, for his contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States, his tireless work to reduce the threat of nuclear conflict and his efforts to secure the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.”

Hesburgh was a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and served on it from 1957-72. He was Notre Dame’s president from 1952-1987.

Donnelly, a 1977 graduate of the University, was a student during the Hesburgh era, decided to sponsor a resolution honoring Hesburgh, who he called a “tremendous role model” and one of his heroes, when he found out he would be honored for his 90th birthday in Washington. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery accepted a portrait of Hesburgh arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. into its collection earlier the day the resolution passed. A copy of the photograph hangs in the LaFortune Student Center.

“A few of us got together and said we’d love to present him with a proclamation from Congress at that time. His lifework is breathtaking,” Donnelly said. “He is one of the Americans that has changed this country in the past century and the beginning of this century. I wanted to make sure everyone in America understood what a tremendous human being Father Hesburgh is.”

Donnelly said he has spoken with Hesburgh many times, both while he was a student at the University and after.

After he presented Hesburgh with the resolution, “I told him what an honor it was to have him as our president at Notre Dame and thank him on behalf of Notre Dame graduates, students and Americans around the country for all he’s done for us,” Donnelly said.

Hesburgh, sitting in his office on the 13th floor of the library named for him, expressed gratitude for Donnelly’s work on the resolution.

“This is a great honor from the Congress,” he said. “Without him, this would have never been. … I am grateful to the congressman for his wonderful efforts to produce this resolution and have it approved unanimously by the Congress.”

Hesburgh, however, said one has “to be careful when so many people are being nice.”

“Don’t let it go to your head,” he said, in between puffs of his cigar. “As someone said, you can taste it, but don’t inhale. But when you get to be 90 years old, it’s nice to be honored, especially in the nation’s capital, where I spent a great deal of my life.”

Donnelly said he was drawn to Hesburgh not only by his accomplishments as civil rights leader and University president, but also by his character.

“He is a rock-solid human being that personifies all the values that our Church and our country hold in one person. … He’s a role model as to how to conduct yourself. If people see Father Hesburgh and try to follow the things he believes in – God, Country, Notre Dame – we’ll all do okay,” he said.

Hesburgh, while gesturing toward the golden dome and Mary though the window in his office, said Notre Dame is “a treasured opportunity enjoyed by only relatively few.”

“Those who have been so chosen have an enormous opportunity to grow during these wonderful four years of higher education at one of the great universities of all time and the top university of the Catholic world,” he said.

Throughout his long career, Hesburgh has served four popes and on 16 presidential appointments. Hesburgh was chairman of the Civil Rights Commission from 1969 until 1972, when President Richard Nixon replaced him after Hesburgh criticized the administration’s civil rights record.

Hesburgh was born May 25, 1917 in Syracuse, N.Y. and educated at Notre Dame and the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross in what is now called the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (formerly Sacred Heart Church) in 1943. Hesburgh continued his study of sacred theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and joined the faculty at Notre Dame in 1945.

During Hesburgh’s time as president, he transferred the governance of the University from members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross to a mostly lay Board of Trustees in 1967.

In 1972, the University for the first time admitted women to the undergraduate program.