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Phillip A. Glotzbach on Fr. Hesburgh

| Saturday, February 28, 2015

The news struck me hard — harder than expected, for it shouldn’t really have been a surprise to lose someone who had lived 97 full years. Harder than expected because I cannot claim to have known him personally. I never climbed the fire escape to visit him in his office as he worked away in the middle of the night. At that point in his tenure, it seemed that Fr. Ted spent even more time away from campus than most university presidents do today — serving as a member of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, among other responsibilities, beyond his main work of carrying the flag for Notre Dame. In fact, a campus joke from the time went like this: “What is the difference between God and Fr. Hesburgh? God is everywhere. Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.”

In my four years on campus, 1968-1972, I saw him in person fewer than five times, including at my graduation. Indeed, I met him only once, several years after Notre Dame, over lunch as a graduate student at Yale, when Fr. Ted was there to visit his good friend Kingman Brewster and deliver a series of lectures. And yet it was abundantly clear that Fr. Hesburgh’s leadership had shaped the University that, in turn, shaped my life in so many ways — in the classroom and beyond. It was a certain and indubitable truth that my University was his University. It was equally clear that he cared about all his students, even those he had never come to know. So maybe it is not surprising after all that his death came as a personal jolt.

Perhaps it was what he represented, what he so evidently stood for. Today, the moral authority of leaders in politics, business and education has been reduced by the well-publicized sins of too many holders of those offices, and even more by the leveling effect of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Today, anyone can be a critic, and any point of view — no matter how warped, misguided, or misinformed — can instantly generate an international following. Perhaps those of us in my generation who protested the Vietnam War and mistrusted everyone over 30 sowed some of the seeds of the cynicism that now has taken hold. But at the end of the 1960s, even as some of us disagreed with Fr. Hesburgh’s stance on campus protest — characterized by the media of the day as “no nonsense at Notre Dame” — I don’t believe that anyone ever doubted either his commitment to basic values of justice and truth or his personal integrity. His determination to advance the cause of social justice infused the campus with a sense of service, which I know is even stronger today than it was in my era. One of my proudest moments as an undergrad came in 1970, when Fr. Hesburgh’s values led him to join his students in a protest march against the War. He not only had integrity; he possessed the humility necessary to change his mind.

Fr. Ted’s leadership of Notre Dame grew out of his vision of academic excellence attached to a fundamental commitment to the Catholic faith, which he defined in terms of action in the world for good. He wanted to create a great Catholic university in America, one that supported teaching and learning in service of that moral project. He pursued his vision, first of all, by creating an ethos that encouraged departments to hire truly great teacher-scholars who would inspire their students not only with a love for their disciplines but also for a love of the good life. As an undergraduate at Fr. Hesburgh’s University, I developed personal relationships with more than a dozen great teachers — most but by no means all in my major, Philosophy — who kindled a love of learning and who ultimately knew me well enough to write a letter of recommendation, if asked. Contemporary students still regularly have that kind of experience at small liberal arts colleges, but only rarely at major research universities. Fr. Hesburgh’s legacy stretches across the magnificent landscape of today’s Notre Dame and includes the University’s position in the world he did so much to establish. But I trust that part of his legacy still manifests itself in the lives of today’s Notre Dame undergraduates — that they continue to experience close relationships with professors who care passionately about both their subjects and their students. For his sake and for the sake of all of us who love the University of Notre Dame, I truly hope they do.

Goodbye, Fr. Ted. We will miss you. And we will never see your equal.

Phillip A. Glotzbach

Class of 1972

President, Skidmore College

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