At 18, the college freshman was feeling homesick as he walked toward class near the Main Building of the University of Notre Dame.
If he looked up, as he usually did when he neared the building, he would have seen the golden image of the Blessed Mother on the golden Dome, shining brightly against the background of a beautiful blue, autumn Indiana sky. Instead, his eyes were focused on the world-renowned figure headed straight toward him on that day in 1973 — Father Theodore Hesburgh, then Notre Dame’s president.
Figuring that Father Ted was on his way to another important meeting, the college freshman prepared to offer a quick hello, hoping at best to get a nod or a brief “hi” in return from the man he was seeing up-close for the first time. Instead, Father Ted slowed down, greeted the student first and stopped to talk — asking his name, asking how he was doing, making him feel that he mattered. When they parted minutes later, the young man was grateful, in awe, and considerably closer to feeling he had another home.
Years later, my first meeting with Father Ted on that day is still a cherished moment in my life. So when I learned the news that Father Ted had died on Feb. 26 at age 97, I read the stories of how he was a confidant to popes and presidents, and how he was regarded as one of the greatest educators of the 20th century. I also pored over the tributes of how he strived for world peace, social justice and civil rights, and how he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for civilians.
Yet first, I thought of that moment when he displayed another standard of greatness — taking time and giving full attention to someone.
That quality was as much a part of his legacy as opening Notre Dame to female students and transforming the college into one of the world’s leading universities. Known for working into the early morning hours in his office in the Main Building, Father Ted often welcomed students there late at night, including some who climbed a fire escape to talk with him about a problem or concern.
Twenty years after meeting him for the first time, I took an elevator to his office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library to interview him for The Indianapolis Star as he neared his 50th anniversary of becoming a Roman Catholic priest. By then, he was president emeritus of Notre Dame, another title on his lengthy list of them. Yet while many other people defined his life by his accolades and accomplishments, Father Ted always viewed his defining legacy as being a priest.
“Being a priest is the center of my life,” he said during our conversation in June of 1993. “A priest has to realize it’s the greatest thing that can happen to you in your life. It’s not something for you, although you get satisfaction out of that. It’s for others. Your whole life is given for others.”
Father Ted also talked about the pledge he made to God when he was ordained on June 24, 1943. He promised to celebrate a Mass every day of his life, “even though the Church did not require that of me or any other priest.”
“I felt the greatest thing you can do as a priest is to offer Mass,” he said. “So I felt if that’s the greatest privilege I have, I didn’t want to waste it. I’ve been able to do it every day for 50 years with the exception of two or three times.”
He then shared the story of one of those exceptions, when he was helping keep vigil during the birth of a baby. It was a day when he had been pacing the maternity ward for hours, smoking cigarette after cigarette with the expectant father, when he saw a nurse rush from the delivery room with the baby. The baby had been born prematurely, weighed about three pounds, and was struggling for his life.
“The nurse went tearing up the steps, and we tore after her,” he recalled. “It turns out the baby wasn’t breathing, and the nurse was taking him up to the oxygen tank on the next floor. She turned it on, put the baby’s face in the mask, and it didn’t work.
“I asked if the baby still had a heartbeat, and the nurse said, ‘Yes.’ I said to the father, ‘We’d better baptize him. What do you want to call him?’ He said, ‘Mark.’ We went over to the sink. The water was very cold and when I sloshed it on the kid and baptized him, he let out a monumental yell. That’s how he started breathing.”
Father Ted’s face glowed as he told that story. The smile remained as he shared how that baby had grown up to be a 48-year-old man who had just sent him a note congratulating him on his 50th anniversary as a priest.
His smile then turned to a laugh as he recalled a humorous story concerning his promise to celebrate Mass every day — a story about the unlikely encounter he had during a trip that had him traveling from the United States to Rome to Jerusalem, all in one day.
Realizing that the only chance he had to celebrate Mass that day was during a stopover in Rome, Father Ted rushed to a small, seedy hotel near the airport. When he asked the hotel’s owner for a room for just one hour, she looked at him suspiciously.
Father Ted recalled with a laugh, “I told her if she had any bad thoughts about it, she could come up and watch me offer Mass. When I came down to pay the bill, she said, ‘No, you have sanctified my hotel.’” With another laugh, Father Ted said he told her, “It sure needs it.”
I still have the thank-you note he sent me for writing two stories about the anniversary of his ordination. He signed it, “All best wishes and prayers from here. Ever devotedly in Notre Dame, Father Ted.”
Notre Dame, Father Ted — together, intertwined forever.
As the wishes and prayers for him pour in from people whose lives he touched in small ways and great ways, he will be remembered for his faith, his vision, his humanity, his leadership, his courage, his charisma and his commitment.
At the same time, it seems worth sharing how he felt as he looked back on his life on the 50th anniversary of his ordination. Reflecting that he had no regrets about a life that touched so many, his words offer an insight into how he wanted to be remembered.
“If I were starting all over again, I’d do it again. I know there are a lot of things I could have had and haven’t had, and that’s all right. That’s part of the deal. But I’ve gotten so much more back, spiritually and humanly. I’m grateful the Lord has given me all these years as a priest.”
John Shaughnessy is a Notre Dame graduate and the author of When God Cheers, The Irish Way of Life and One More Gift to Give. He’s also the assistant editor of The Criterion, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.