From the Archives: The historical connection between Jimmy Carter and Notre Dame
On Feb. 18, former President Jimmy Carter, age 98, entered hospice care. The announcement was followed by a flurry of tributes for the longest-living American president, whose legacy has become defined less by his time in office and more by extensive humanitarian work in the decades since he left the White House.
Carter’s laudable efforts during and after his presidential term have a close connection with Notre Dame. Carter was close friends with Fr. Hesburgh, who served in an advisory role for the president, and Carter also gave the 1977 commencement address at Notre Dame. After leaving office, Carter’s connection with Notre Dame continued with various humanitarian-related events and initiatives. Overall, Notre Dame has played a meaningful role in Jimmy Carter’s extraordinary life which, though not over yet, appears to be coming to a close.
Jimmy Carter’s seminal 1977 commencement speech
In May 1977, the University of Notre Dame invited then-President Jimmy Carter to deliver the commencement address fresh after a close election victory the previous year. University President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh said in a statement that he asked Carter to “speak again on the issue of human rights around the world,” after coming away inspired by Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights during his campaign stop at Notre Dame in the fall prior.
Not everyone was thrilled with the choice of venue, however. A Notre Dame senior, Marty White (‘77), started a petition to move the speech from the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center to the much larger Notre Dame Stadium. White contended that the diminutive Joyce Center fell short in accommodating such a distinguished speaker, citing the limited allowance of only five tickets per senior and the fact that the class of ’77 marked the largest graduating cohort in the history of Notre Dame. Fr. Hesburgh vetoed the 850-signature petition, citing “several difficulties.”
Despite the venue controversy, Carter’s speech at Notre Dame was well-received and has since been viewed as one of Carter’s seminal articulations of his foreign policy. In his address, Carter called for a “new American foreign policy — a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.”
One notable moment came when Carter spoke candidly about the failure of the Vietnam War.
“We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water,” he said. “This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty.”
Carter described a different vision for American leadership, sharing that he believed it was a unique American responsibility to “respond to the new reality of a politically awakening world” and to “continue — confidently — our efforts to inspire, to persuade, and to lead.”
Overall, Carter’s speech at Notre Dame in 1977 was a significant moment in the University’s and the country’s history. Fr. Hesburgh’s decision to invite the sitting president of the United States and to have him discuss policy issues was a bold move that no doubt sparked controversy, but ultimately led to a thought-provoking speech that was impactful beyond the immediate occasion.
The impactful friendship between Jimmy Carter and Fr. Hesburgh
Nov. 5, 1976 | Paul Hess | Oct. 11, 1977 | Peggy McGuire | Oct. 10, 1979 | Maribeth Moran | March 5, 2015 | Emily McConville, Margaret Hynds and Kayla Mullen | March 2, 2015 | Jimmy Carter | Researched by Erin Drumm
In November of 1976, Fr. Hesburgh expressed his confidence in the new president-elect of the United States, Jimmy Carter. Hesburgh believed that Carter would be “a really great president,” if he surrounded himself with the right people.
Incidentally, one of the “right people” Carter surrounded himself with was Fr. Hesburgh himself. Carter and Hesburgh became close friends during Carter’s term, and the American president appointed Notre Dame’s president to several notable leadership positions.
Carter designated Hesburgh as U.S. ambassador to the 1979 United Nations Conference on Science and Technology and chairman of the U.S. delegation to the conference. Additionally, Carter appointed Hesburgh to a commission on the creation of the Holocaust Museum and as chair of the select committee on Immigration and Refugee Policy.
“He succeeded beyond expectations in all these tasks,” Carter wrote in the Observer’s Hesburgh memorial issue in 2015.
Fr. Hesburgh also provided frequent personal advice and counseling which President Carter found invaluable.
“Once when I asked [Fr. Hesburgh], ‘how can you advise anybody to be a leader of a great nation?’ he said, ‘be human,’” Carter said. “I took that advice.”
In return for his service, Hesburgh, an airplane enthusiast, requested to ride in the fastest plane in the world at the time, an SR-71 Blackbird.
Recounting this occasion at Father Hesburgh’s memorial service in 2015, Carter described that Hesburgh and the pilot “set a new world record for the fastest human beings have ever flown except the astronauts in a rocket. . . [Fr. Hesburgh] says that was one of the greatest achievements he ever accomplished. I’m proud that I was able to do that for him, because he did so much for people everywhere.”
Jimmy Carter and Fr. Hesburgh’s friendship, grounded in a shared commitment to advancing human rights and mitigating violence, made a profound impact on the University of Notre Dame, the United States of America and the world as a whole.
Jimmy Carter (Re)visits South Bend
Beyond his most notable visits in 1977 and 2015, former President Jimmy Carter made several other visits to Notre Dame. These instances mark key points in his presidential and post-office humanitarian ventures. Carter’s dedication to helping others can be tracked through his historical relationship with Notre Dame and the surrounding community.
Carter made two separate trips to South Bend in 1967 during his presidential campaign. His spring visit was a four-hour swing through the local area, where the prospective president toured South Bend city hall, spoke with Bendix Corporation workers and visited the Notre Dame football team.
Carter also held a press conference at Michiana Regional Airport just before embarking on a plane to Milwaukee to see the Wisconsin primary results. Carter emphasized his stance on civil rights, noting his opposition to housing segregation and race-based residential exclusion. The Carters would make housing one of their main areas of focus (especially in their relationship with Notre Dame) for years to come, but this press conference seems to mark the beginning of that important cause.
Carter built on these themes in his Oct. 1967 visit to Notre Dame at a speech in present-day McKenna Hall. He called for a renewed spirit of American voluntarism, saying, “What’s needed is presidential leadership to encourage and honor service.” Despite the election-motivated undercurrents of Carter’s words, they foreshadowed the humanitarian efforts for which he would be commended in the future — fittingly, at Notre Dame.
On March 23, 1992, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were presented the first annual Notre Dame Award by University President Edward Malloy. According to Malloy, this award “provide[d] prominent and lasting recognition of international humanitarian service.” The Carters received this honor in large part because of the global impact of the Carter Center, a nonpartisan organization focusing on international aid on medical treatment, environmental protection, food production and civil conflict mediation.
In his speech following the award acceptance, Jimmy Carter emphasized America’s duty as a wealthy nation to support those less fortunate, harkening back to his voluntarist sentiments in 1967. A significant partner of the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity, was referenced in the 1992 Observer article as one of the most impactful parts of the program.
In a full-circle moment encompassing the humanitarian connection between the Carters and Notre Dame, Jimmy and Rosalynn came to Purcell Pavilion in 2018 to open the 35th Carter Work Project and its Annual Building Blitz, and initiative sponsored by St. Joseph County Habitat for Humanity. TV host David Letterman and country singers Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks also made appearances at the ceremony that helped kick off an initiative to build 22 houses in South Bend over the following week.
A tribute video at the ceremony acknowledged the significance of Carter’s selection of South Bend for his annual aid work, seemingly indicating his affection for the region.
“The Carter Work Project can be anywhere in the world,” the video said. “It only happens once a year. But it’s here, in St. Joseph County.”
President John Jenkins’ speech emphasized the rich humanitarian history between the Carters and Notre Dame, especially as facilitated by longtime friend Fr. Hesburgh.
“You worked with him on so many different projects — on peace-building, on human rights, on avoiding mass-starvation [and on] Cambodia with you, Mrs. Carter,” Jenkins said. “I know that Fr. Ted is looking down on us and smiling. So happy we are here.”