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‘Hesburgh’ movie, panel reflect on former president’s legacy of activism, ‘kindness’


Students and faculty gathered in the Mendoza College of Business auditorium Wednesday evening to watch a screening of the documentary film, “Hesburgh,” which follows the life of famed, former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.

The event was put on by the Mendoza Staff Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council as a part of Notre Dame’s Walk the Walk Week (WTWW), a series of events meant to promote reflection and inspire the campus community to work towards inclusivity. 

The film, released in 2018, was directed by Notre Dame graduate, Patrick Creadon. Weaving together historic photographs and footage with a multitude of interviews, Creadon brought Hesburgh’s legacy to life. 

Beginning with Hesburgh’s call to priesthood and education at Notre Dame, the documentary weaves through the major progress Hesburgh enacted on campus and at national and international levels.

In his early days as university president, Hesburgh tackled issues on “religious liberty.” He worked to uphold Notre Dame’s strong Catholic faith while ensuring it never fringed upon “academic freedom” as well as providing students with a universal education.

On campus, Hesburgh was known as “Uncle Ted.” Beloved by students, the film explains how Hesburgh made it a point to make himself available to any and all students in need of advice. And, according to every film interviewee, his advice was unmatched. 

But, what occupied much of Hesburgh’s career outside of Notre Dame was his work in the Civil Rights Movement. He served on the Civil Rights Commission for 15 years. According to the documentary, this was where Hesburgh really emerged as a “bridge builder: between people and God and among people.” 

Hesburgh worked both behind the scenes in enacting true legislative change and also marched hand in hand with Martin Luther King Jr., a world-famous civil rights activist.  

In addition to his work contributing to equality and civil rights, the film delves into how Hesburgh was instrumental in mediating discussions between the United States and Russia during the nuclear arms crisis. Back on campus, Hesburgh made university history yet again by making Notre Dame coeducational in 1972. 

Then, in 1987, Hesburgh retired as president of the university, after progress-infused 35 years in the position. 

Wednesday night’s screening of the film was followed by a panel discussion featuring three individuals that knew Hesburgh personally: former University president Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy, Vice President for institutional transformation and advisor to the president Rev. Canon Hugh Page Jr. and one of the Hesburgh Women of Impact and visiting teaching professor Joan Mileski.

Although “Hesburgh” told the tale of an esteemed university president, an international leader and a highly sought-after advisor, the panelists said they recall, most of all, a friend.

Specifically, Page told the audience how Hesburgh’s kind heart and generous spirit have stuck with him through the years.

“It always struck me that with the thousands of people that he knew on campus and around the world, he would always remember and always knew what it was I was doing,” he recalled. “The act of kindness from those who have positions of authority means an incredible amount to those that are just starting off and making their way through.”

Mileski, who was among the first class of women admitted to the university, told listeners a personal experience with Hesburgh’s kindness and love after her father’s passing.

“[During graduation,] you go through the line and shake hands with the president and the students graduating, and my mother was just like a deer in the headlights. [Hesburgh] could tell and he said to her, ‘come over here,’” Mileski said. “It was the way he could just sense that.”

Hesburgh’s successor, Malloy said he relayed one of the many amusing anecdotes about his friendship with Hesburgh.

“He loved to travel. And he was able to be in 110 counties, and I’ve been to 90, so I trailed behind him,” Malloy said. “But I got to Tibet… when he found out about it, he was so jealous because he had never been to Tibet. I said, ‘what about all those other countries you’ve been to?’ And he said, ‘well, I wanted to be to Tibet someday.’”

Overall, both the documentary and panelists could agree with the sentiments of the film’s tagline: “One ordinary man. One extraordinary life.”

Contact Kelsey at kquint@nd.edu.