Letter from campus: Happy 90th, Father Hesburgh

Author: Kerry Temple ’74


One afternoon while we were working on this issue the time seemed right to visit Father Hesburgh. It’s only natural to think of the man who presided over the University for 35 years when you’re asking Notre Dame people to write about what they’re doing here. Hesburgh has spent a lifetime answering that question, and his response has been to combat racism, promote peace, serve presidents and popes, spread justice and determinedly push his school into the front rank of higher education. In doing this (and a whole lot more) Hesburgh became one of the nation’s most prominent leaders and an exemplary citizen of the world simply by performing—he will say time and again—his duties as a Catholic priest.

How could we address the question “What am I doing here?” and not mention the man who has so stunningly shown us what one person can do? Besides, this spring Father Ted turns 90, and the moment couldn’t pass without good wishes being conveyed.

I was lucky to be in his company for a half-dozen Hesburgh birthday celebrations at Land O’Lakes, the University’s 7,000-acre retreat in the northwoods of Wisconsin. Each May a group of us went there for annual meetings, and Hesburgh would always be there. It’s a favorite place of his. He’s got a cabin, and he loves to fish, and he’d say Mass each evening, followed by drinks and dinner, cigars and stories. There’d be a fire blazing and other, more lasting means of warmth.

My first time there he put his arm around my shoulder and talked about my Louisiana hometown during his days on the Civil Rights Commission and how he brought the other commissioners here to Land O’Lakes to fish and argue and hammer out the historic report that helped end apartheid in America. When he was asked by President Eisenhower how he had gotten agreement so quickly from Democrats and Republicans, Southerners and Northerners, Hesburgh said everyone on the commission was a fisherman, and he made sure they all fished together for a few days before talking business.

It’s here, too, where Hesburgh formulated the 1967 Land O’Lakes statement that declared Catholic colleges and universities independent from the institutional church. Some still criticize him for this—just as others chastised him for enrolling women in 1972. But the man seems comfortable with the idea that leadership means, quite by definition, to stand ahead of the crowd.

Something else sets him apart. Father Hesburgh can read the landscape with acuity. He can see through the bull to focus on what’s right and true. Then he acts resolutely according to the lights of his own conscience. That’s a rare trait in today’s world. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, you know he is a man of conviction.

Yet he’s never lost the human touch. People once joked that the difference between God and Hesburgh was that God is everywhere and Hesburgh everywhere but Notre Dame. But the accounts of students venturing to Hesburgh’s office in the middle of the night are not mythical. The tales of his intercession and kindness, of his helping, saving, healing are legend—and true. I would receive handwritten notes from him as president when I had no business on his radar screen. Despite traveling to the realms of power and prestige, he is a remarkably regular guy.

So on this latest visit Father Hesburgh asks about my family and the magazine. He puffs on his cigar, and we recall the day an Amish man and mutual friend handed Ted the reins of the Amish buggy and we clippety-clopped down the road—certainly a minor jaunt for a man who’s been everywhere, flown in the world’s fastest airplane, dived in a submarine. His eyesight has faded, but his mind is sharp and loaded with stories. I mention his upcoming birthday and tell him the magazine will do something to acknowledge it. “Well, do as little as possible,” he says, and I say okay.

“Happy birthday from all of us. Thanks for everything.”

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.