Students reflect on Fr. Ted’s achievements
For the students who met him, University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh was a powerful and memorable presence.
Sophomore Andrew Lehmer met Hesburgh, who died Thursday at the age of 97, during his freshman year after attending a Latino retreat.
“It was crazy how impactful his presence was,” Lehmer said. “You could sense every word meant something bigger.”
Lehmer said he asked the former University president, civil rights activist, diplomat and priest what he could do to make his own life as meaningful as Hesburgh’s.
“He told me ‘be a good Catholic,’” he said. “Obviously, that can be taken a lot of ways, but I’m trying to figure it out by actively pursuing the faith and keeping what he said in the back of my mind.”
Sophomore Mary White, the president of Pasquerilla East Hall (PE), said a group of PE residents were supposed to meet with Hesburgh on Thursday afternoon. She said the dorm-wide response to the invitation to see Hesburgh was so overwhelming that the coordinators limited the visit to upperclassmen, though the meeting was eventually cancelled.
To meet Hesburgh was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, White said.
“It served as an integral Notre Dame experience,” she said. “It was something you would go on to tell your children about.”
Junior Diego Valenzuela visited Hesburgh with his section of Stanford Hall last year, to talk with Hesburgh and hear his stories.
“Just being in his presence was just unbelievable because this man has accomplished so much and done so many great things for Notre Dame and the United States and Catholics everywhere,” Valenzuela said.
Late in his life, Hesburgh lost most of his sight as well as most of his mobility, but his mind remained sharp and his speaking powerful. Junior Jesse Hamilton said each time Hesburgh spoke to his ROTC class, he would be slowly led onstage.
“It was such a slow, ginger process to get him up to the podium, and as soon as he spoke, he spoke with such clarity and sharpness,” Hamilton said. “It was incredible just to see how all of his mind was there and all the love he had for us. Any words that came out of his mouth, you knew were genuine, and just the couple times I met him, he inspired me to be the best Christian I can be, the best leader I can be. He will be greatly missed.”
But for all his accomplishments — as a University president, as a leader in civil rights and Catholic education — and gravitas, students were struck by his congeniality and concern for each individual student.
Junior Anthony Barrett also visited Hesburgh with his section from Stanford Hall. Barrett said the former president asked for each person’s name, hometown and major.
“He would say something kind to each person,” Barrett said. “He’s done so much for us as a school, on a large level, and he also still took the time to get to know people on an individual level. That’s the kind of person that we should all aspire to be.”
Junior Paul Coletti said he first met Hesburgh in front of the library named for him during a scavenger hunt in his freshman orientation weekend. Hesburgh stopped and spoke with the group.
Later, Colletti became a University tour guide. During a tour Thursday, the day Hesburgh died, he told a group about Hesburgh’s accomplishments.
“I told the girl who I was touring about how students are sometimes even called up to read to him, if they’re studying on the upper floors of the library, and she turned to her dad, and she was like, ‘I want to come here,’” he said. “… Little did I know.
“He was a great University president. He was probably the closest thing to a living saint that I ever was in a picture with and shook hands with. He was certainly good for the University, but also good for Catholics everywhere.”
Many students who never met Hesburgh also felt his influence. Junior Erin Bishop said in the days after his death, she kept thinking about his decision to make Notre Dame co-educational.
“Without him, none of us would be here,” she said. “There would be no women here. That thought just keeps going through my head, you know? Without him, this wouldn’t be my life, and this is such a big part of my life. The University is really going to miss him. And I hope that they choose to celebrate his life rather than mourn his loss.”
Junior Bryan Ricketts, student body president-elect, said he went to the 13th floor of the library after Hesburgh’s death to see his office. He said Hesburgh was instrumental in making Notre Dame co-ed and a premier research institution, and he looks to him for inspiration as a leader.
“I hadn’t had the chance to speak to him after being elected; it was something I was hoping to do with the team,” Ricketts said. “He’s such an inspiration and left such a legacy.”
Freshman Gabriel Gaspar never got the chance to meet Hesburgh, but when he heard of his death Thursday, he, like dozens of other students, headed to the Grotto to pay his respects.
“He’s really affected a lot of people here,” he said. “Everyone I talk to, like my first week here, Fr. Hesburgh came up, like, ‘you should definitely meet him.’ He’s someone who can change your life. He’s someone who truly represents Notre Dame and really brings the meaning of it to this entire school.”
Grotto candles were rearranged to spell “TED,” and people left a cigar and notes in candle holders. The gathering at the Grotto on Thursday also included an impromptu rendition of the Alma Mater. Freshman Will Lederer, who attended the event, said Hesburgh inspired a sense of community among Notre Dame students.
“For the six months I’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve felt this way yet,” Letterer said. “Just the community, the service and the gratitude we owe Fr. Hesburgh, and the outpouring of support is just truly inspiring. It’s really heartwarming. I’m glad I was here.”