When someone as great as Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC, lives deep into his 97th year, you begin to wonder if he might just live forever. So news of his death today has come as a sudden blow, a punch to the stomach, even though reports had him in severe decline over the past few weeks.
The staff here at Notre Dame Magazine started working on a special Hesburgh edition almost a decade ago. I paid him a visit then to tell him he might be hearing from writers wanting to interview him. He laughed a little when I told him why; he said we’d rounded up some good people — several of whom the man outlived.
Sadly, the time has come to finish up that special edition and get it printed and sent to our readers.
Those readers should know that this magazine owes much of its character, integrity and credibility to Father Hesburgh and to the two University relations leaders — Jim Frick and Dick Conklin — who worked closely with Father Ted for decades. It was they, and the first editor, Ron Parent, who envisioned a magazine that tackled the toughest issues, that challenged its readers, that brought Notre Dame voices into dialogue sorting out the thorniest of topics. And a magazine that served the University well by covering plainly, openly and honestly the imperfect institution we all love.
Through the years some of those voices made people angry, and sometimes Father Hesburgh told us what he didn’t like, stories that rankled him. But he never tried to silence or muffle the discourse. It’s a university, he would say, a believer in the interaction of heart, mind and soul grappling forthrightly with science or society or the trials of human nature. He believed in freedom of the press, he said, and that meant fostering, not subduing freedom of expression — even when it applied to his own institution.
He told me once that a good magazine walked right up to the edge, should even walk along that edge, and when you’re there, he said, you’ll fall off occasionally. That’s to be expected, and right. In fact, it should be in the editor’s contract to get three falls a year.
He told me that some time after he had retired.
I came to work at Notre Dame 36 years ago. I came because I believed in the place, because I fully subscribed to Father Hesburgh’s vision of a great Catholic university that pursued the highest reaches of intellectual attainment and incorporated into that endeavor the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions that make us fully human — that open our lives and “the endless conversation” to those mysteries of human existence. The world, he said, needs places that do all that and do it exceedingly well — well enough that it does proud service to God.
Some few years ago the Alumni Association was good enough to present me with the Armstrong Award (given to an alum for their work at Notre Dame), which I happily accepted on behalf of the magazine — because I knew it was the magazine being deservedly honored, not an individual.
And I knew, when accepting that recognition, that I would explain that the magazine from its inception had been seen as an extension of Father Hesburgh’s vision for the University as a place of truth seeking and truth sharing. I had told him so privately on several occasions, adding that I wished the magazine had approximated the degree of courage and conviction with which he had lived. He was a model and a hero and a saint in so many ways.
Father Hesburgh sat next to me that night at dinner when awards were given. I was told he had requested that. It’s hard to think of a time in my life when I have been prouder.
Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.