A Priest Forever

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Author: Jerry Reedy ’58

This piece ran in the summer edition of Notre Dame Magazine in 1993.


He walks into the library somewhere around noon, takes the elevator to the eighth floor, then gets off and climbs the next five flights to his office. That’s exactly 100 steps.

The 14-hour days he was famous for during the 35 years when he was Notre Dame’s president are still part of his regimen, and he fills those hours with phone calls and seeing visitors and answering mail and reading. He has always been a voracious reader.

In the early evening he takes a break for vespers and dinner with his fellow Holy Cross priests in Corby Hall. Then he goes back to the office to work some more, often staying there until 2 in the morning. He contributes chapters to books, writes prefaces and reviews, visits with friends who drop by, counsels students who are still attracted by his open door. He sifts 10 to 15 speaking invitations a week but turns down most of them. “People think that because you’re retired, you have nothing else to do,” he says with resignation. “If I never gave another outside talk, I’d have more than enough to do, believe me.”

Photo by Matt Cashore

Speeches are one thing, homilies another: He usually accepts the requests that come his way to offer Mass in one residence hall or another. The priesthood is his defining role, and he never seems more comfortable than on the altar. In June, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination.

For Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, C.S.C., retirement from the presidency of Notre Dame six years ago began with a year of globe-girdling travel. His companion on the road – and on the seas – was his ex-administrative sidekick, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C. Their adventures are chronicled in a recent book, Travels with Ted and Ned.

Back on campus in the summer of 1988, the president-emeritus quickly demonstrated the he had no intention of taking life easy. In his spacious office on the 13th floor of the library that bears his name, he appears today to be as busy as ever. He looks and acts much the same as he did a decade ago: vigorous, gracious, ruggedly handsome, in charge. The window near his desk affords a commanding view of campus. “When they built this office for me, I asked only that they give me floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a good view of the dome and the church. They did that, and more,” he says, sweeping a hand westward.

These days, Hesburgh spends much of his time nurturing the five Notre Dame institutes he founded. Collectively, these institutes represent the major concerns of his adult life. Two of them, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, operate out of another namesake building, the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

The Kellogg Institute focuses on economic development and democratic institutions in Latin America. The Kroc Peace Studies Institute devotes its energies to the study of peace, drawing scholars and students from around the world. At an important peace meeting in Japan recently, four of those in attendance were graduates of Notre Dame’s Peace Institute, more than any other school or organization. “We’re beginning to get into the center of policymaking,” Hesburgh says with a touch of pride. “Because of all the activities and expertise these two institutes have, they are becoming known as major players in the closely-related areas of peace and world development.”

The Center for Human and Civil Rights operates out of the Notre Dame Law School. It, too, attracts students from all over the world, especially from places like Chile, South Africa, and parts of the old Soviet Union. Because this institute currently has the greatest need for funding, Hesburgh is donating to it the proceeds from his two most recent books.

The fourth institute, located not at Notre Dame but in Tantur, Israel, just outside Jerusalem, is the Ecumenical Institute. Located on a Holy Land hilltop that Hesburgh himself selected more than a quarter of a century ago, it has been the site over the years of conferences that have draw upwards of 2,500 delegates from every conceivable branch of Christianity. It has also served as a kind of neutral zone where Israelis and Palestinians have been able to get together to talk.

These four institutes are close to Hesburgh’s social conscience, but the Hank Family Environmental Research Center may be the closest to his fisherman’s heart. Situated on 7,000 acres of lake-dotted woodlands near Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, it supports the work of about 80 biological researches each summer. Hesburgh sees it as the perfect place to conduct baseline studies on pollution, because it produces none of its own. “Nuclear war could wipe out the planet in an hour, but the ecological threat is no less serious,” he says. “If we make our air unbreathable, our water undrinkable and our soil untellable, the results will be the same.”

Although Hesburgh isn’t involved in the day-to-day business of the institutes, his four decades on the world stage and his network of international connections make him an ideal facilitator. He sits on the boards or advisory councils of some 50 international organizations – the Overseas Development council is typical – that address themselves to problems and issues closely related to the work of the institutes. “If there is something they’re interested in or working on, and one of these 50 national or international organizations is also interested in it or working on it, then our people don’t have to start from scratch,” he observes.

Other demands on Hesburgh’s time include the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Board of Overseers of Harvard University and the Scadden Foundation, which supports legal scholarship.

His appointment by President Bush in 1992 to a five-year term with the U.S. Institute of Peace brought to 15 the number of presidential appointments he has accepted in his lifetime. As a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, he owns the distinction of being the only Catholic priest ever to sit on that board since Harvard’s founding in 1636. And as a member of the board of the Scadden Foundation, he helps to choose the 35 law graduates each year who receive $35,000 scholarships so they can devote themselves to pro bono work fresh out of law school.

Another of Hesburgh’s major commitments has been the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. As its co-chair, he helped rewrite rules that promise to restore integrity and respectability to college sports programs. “Our role was advisory,” he says, “but we changed the face of intercollegiate athletics.”

Never one to be campus-bound, Hesburgh continues to pursue a lifelong passion for travel. Since retirement, the cruise ship has replaced the airplane as his favorite way of getting around, though not as an ordinary passenger. Starting with the around-the-world cruise he and Ned Joyce took during their year of globetrotting, the two have sailed together four times. Each time they’ve paid their way as chaplains, and on their most recent voyage, through the South China Sea, they gave lectures, too.

The two priests celebrated shipboard Mass every day and counseled passengers on demand. “The main difference in doing pastoral work on a cruise ship is that people seem to open up more,” Hesburgh says. “It probably has something to do with the vastness of the sea and the fact that they know they’re probably never going to see you again.”

Hesburgh has not entirely abandoned jet travel, however. Last summer, scheduled to address a meeting of the Ecumenical Institute in Paris, he flew overseas three days early so he could refresh his French skills with the family of a Saint Mary’s alumna he knows in Angier. When the meeting was over, he traveled to Edinburgh because “I’d never been there and I wanted to see the castle.”

Photo by Matt Cashore

Another trip took him to Madrid for the annual meeting of the chief Executives Officers Forum. As education director of that organization, his jobs were to choose a theme for the meeting and to line up guest speakers. As he has done on many other occasions, he drew upon friends in high places: Don Keough, president of Coca Cola and a Notre Dame trustee; Jim Grant, president of UNICEF, and Teddy Kolleck, mayor of Jerusalem.

The theme he picked for the meeting has Vintage Hesburgh, a big-picture topic with plenty of historical sweep: “The background for it was the discovery of America,” he says. “Five hundred years ago Columbus made a new beginning in the world, and the world has never been the same since. Now, with the downfall of communism and the end of colonialism and all the other things that have happened, we – that is, the human race – have been handed another opportunity. The question is – and here’s where the theme comes in – what are we going to do with this new opportunity for a new world?”

Careful to stay out of the way of the administration that followed his at Notre Dame, Hesburgh’s only remaining official role is that of a University trustee; at board meeting, though, he makes it a point to say very little unless called upon. “I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t give any advice unless I was asked for it,” he says flatly. “Occasionally if I have what I think is a bright idea I’ll just send a note over and tell them they can do whatever they want with it. I’d say everybody’s quite relaxed around here on this whole subject. The new administration is doing well, and if there’s any way I can back them, I do, at least indirectly.”

He goes so far as to avoid visiting the Main Building unless there’s a compelling reason. “I’ve been in the building just five times in more than five years,” he says with obvious satisfaction.

As for faculty friends, “they’re in and out. Some come over if they have a problem they think I might know something about. One thin g I do know about this place is how it works. But they all know there is one piece of ground I don’t walk on, and that’s discussing the present administration. I think it’s important that I adhere to that policy very strictly.”

He still relates to students in the same easy, informal way he was known for as president. “The door is always open and I have students in here every day. Quite a few who stop up here are thinking about the priesthood, and I’m gratified by that. A lot of them want a recommendation for graduate school. One student wanted advice on running for student body president. Now that I’m older, I’m giving the students grandfatherly advice instead of fatherly advice.”

Every semester since his retirement, Hesburgh has accepted invitations to drop in on classes as a guest lecturer. The subject matter has ranged through affirmative action, disarmament, the history of the civil rights movement, taking chances with venture capital, the requirements of leadership and, appropriately, “presidents I have known.” Students regularly bring him term papers to read and critique, and he serves as an academic adviser to one student who’s in a special program based on the Oxford model. He also keeps in touch with many former students, especially some he helped train in the early days of the Peace Corps.

In short, Hesburgh shows few signs of slowing down. His health has always been remarkably good, and for a man of his years it continues to be. “I’ve had over 75 years out of this old corpse,” he says, “and I’m grateful for every one of them.” Though he admits to experiencing back pain and problems with his vision, he treats both as little more than minor annoyances. His daily exercise consists of stretching for the back problem and walking between Corby Hall and his library office.

A couple of years ago he went up to the Mayo Clinic to have his back checked out. The doctors told him all he could do was take Tylenol every four hours. He refused, because “I didn’t want to make myself blotto.” Instead, he got hold of a book that touted mind over matter as the way to handle pain. He tried it and it worked.

Several years earlier, when he was still president, he began noticing a loss of strength in his legs. He immediately got himself a stationary bicycle and rode it every day, listening to Chinese language tapes as he pedaled. “I put 3,000 miles on it,” he says. “My legs improved a lot, but my Chinese didn’t. I learned that when you’re past 70 you’re not going to learn Chinese.”

For total relaxation, Hesburgh likes nothing better than to spend time at the Land O’Lakes property, which was a summer retreat site for the Holy Cross order long before it became the home of the Environmental Institute. He spends two or three weeks there every year, reading, writing, listening to classical music on Wisconsin Public Radio – and fishing. Last year he caught a 25-pound muskie while fishing with Jerry Hank, a Notre Dame trustee, benefactor, and Land O’Lakes neighbor, and Gerry Schoesser, the manager of the property. But let him tell it:

“I was casting an orange bucktail with a minnow hooked on behind. I had just reeled it in and had it alongside the boat slightly out of the water, when a muskie lunged at it. He missed, cart wheeled in the water and lunged once more. He missed again, but this time his momentum carried him into the boat –or more precisely, onto Gerry Schoesser’s lap. The fish was trashing around a lot. Gerry tried to wrestle it to the bottom of the boat so it couldn’t jump back into the lake.

“During the struggle, Jerry Hank tried several times to bash the muskie with an oar without bashing Gerry. It seemed that every time he tried, Gerry’s head was in the way. In the meantime, this round-bottomed boat were in was rocking back and forth, threatening to dump all of us in the lake. To keep Jerry from falling overboard as he attempted to swing the oar at the fish, I grabbed him from behind by the belt. Finally, he managed to get in one good whack, which stunned the fish long enough to get a stringer into its mouth.

“Brother Tommy Tucker and Father George Schidel each caught good-sized muskies in the same 24-hour period – but they used hooks.”

Will Hesburgh ever retire for real? Don’t bet on it. “I just want to continue making whatever contribution I can, in the areas I’m interested in. I’m not at an age where you don’t buy green bananas any more. But as long as I can keep going, I will.”

What would he tell those who are contemplating retirement? “Make a clean break. Don’t hover over the people who succeed you. Arrange a new situation for yourself. With me, it’s the five institutes and the other things. You do them flat out as long as you can, realizing that one bright day you’re probably going to drop dead on the floor of an airport somewhere.” A few months ago, Hesburgh’s friend Tim Healy, a S.J., former president of Georgetown and the New York Public Library, did just that. “It seems that every time I pick up The New York Times and read the obituary page, someone I know is in there.”

Another friend who died recently was Moose Krause, the legendary athletic director Hesburgh appointed when Frank Leahy was still coaching the football team. “Moose was a marvelous Notre Damer, a saint. He took care of his sick wife for 20 years without a whimper and with great generosity and love. He was a wonderful guy. May we all do as well.”

By and large, Father Ted is doing quite well. At the end of the day, he walks back to his room in Corby Hall, the same one he has lived in since 1949. “It’s in the back of the building overlooking the garbage cans,” he says with a trace of a smile. “I know every back-up signal of every truck that’s ever picked up the garbage or delivered food.”


Chicago freelance writer Jerry Reedy was co-author of Father Hesburgh’s bestselling autobiography, God, Country, Notre Dame, and edited his more recent travel memoir, Travels with Ted and Ned. Though he has fished with Hesburgh at Land O’Lakes, he insists no fish ever leaped into his boat.


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