United States Postal Service and Digger Phelps immortalize Fr. Ted Hesburgh’s legacy
Mike Donovan | Wednesday, August 30, 2017
This Friday at 1 p.m. in Purcell Pavilion, the United States Postal Service will unveil a 49-cent Forever stamp commemorating the life and work of Notre Dame’s most prominent figure — University president emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. The ceremony will feature a notable list of speakers including former Secretary of State and Notre Dame alumna Condoleezza Rice, Postmaster General Megan Brennan and University president Fr. John Jenkins. Digger Phelps, the famed Notre Dame men’s basketball coach of 20 seasons and former member of the U.S. Postal Service’s Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, will emcee the event. The stamps will be available for purchase at Purcell Pavilion, the Notre Dame Post Office and in the Hammes Bookstore following the ceremony.
For those who’d like to further investigate Hesburgh’s enduring legacy, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Phelps’ latest book — “Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me” — written in conjunction with Tim Bourret. In his writing, Phelps offers an image of Hesburgh we seldom see, one of intimacy and warmth.
The book, in premise and scope, sets out to accomplish a monumental task — that of honoring a man who many, including Phelps, considered to be “a living saint.” Yet, Phelps finds success, mainly through his beautiful humility. The coach’s portrait of Hesburgh, constructed with a series of conversational anecdotes, vignettes and personal reflections, immortalizes the late priest with the unfettered honesty of a close friend. It also envisions the Hesburgh legacy at a unique contextual location — the intersection of faith, justice, friendship and, of course, basketball.
As its title suggests, the book casts Hesburgh in a coach’s role. It shows how Hesburgh, like all great coaches, has an exceptional “starting five” (Chapter 3), an effective game plan (Chapter 6), an illustrious history of past victories (Chapter 5) and an unbreakable philosophy at the center of it all (Chapter 7). Phelps, who counts himself among the many players on Hesburgh’s immense and accomplished team, pays particular attention to the domino effect of the priest’s coaching prowess. The coach attributes much of his success on the court — “Believe it or not, we never lost a game when Father Hesburgh said the pregame Mass and sat on the bench, a perfect 7-0” — and off — “My discussion with Father Ted sparked an idea to improve the infrastructure of the schools in South Bend” — to the priest’s presence, wisdom and support.
The books most enduring moments, however, occur outside of the coaching framework. They manifest themselves in the dining room of Parisi’s restaurant, where Phelps would excitedly “pick [Hesburgh’s] brain about his life experiences.” They appear on secluded walks at the edge of campus in the presence of “a life-sized bronze statue of Jesus hanging form the cross, flanked by the statue of Mary on the right side and a statue of Mary Magdalene on the left,” radiating a spiritual glow. And, perhaps most substantially, they shine through a darkness that Phelps’ eloquently captures in his account of Hesburgh’s final days.
“Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me” adds another facet to the captivating human story of a man whose influence has blossomed into an immortal life of its own. It imbues the upcoming stamp unveiling with a rich symbolic depth. These stamps are more than just stickers — or well-decorated elements of postage. Rather, they indicate the spiritual stamps that Hesburgh placed on thousands of hearts — testaments to the indomitable sense of mercy that defined their subject matter.
“Father Ted Hesburgh: He Coached Me” by Digger Phelps with Tim Bourret is available in the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore and through most major booksellers.
Special thanks to Digger Phelps for providing background on this piece.