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Theodore Martin Hesburgh

Theodore Martin Hesburgh

Theodore Martin Hesburgh (born 1917) was an activist American Catholic priest who was president of Notre Dame, 1952-1987. He served on the Civil Rights Commission from 1957 to 1972, becoming both its most outspoken member and its chairman. He was also active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and in efforts to improve the treatment of illegal aliens.

Theodore Martin Hesburgh was born May 25, 1917, in Syracuse, New York, to Theodore Barnard Hesburgh and Ann Marie Murphy Hesburgh. A product of the "Catholic ghetto," he attended only Roman Catholic schools and felt called to be a priest while only in grade school. Following graduation from high school in 1934 he entered the Order of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and began his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame that fall. He was graduated from Gregorian University in 1939 with a Ph.D. degree and entered the seminary at Holy Cross College, Washington, D.C., in 1940. Hesburgh was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1943 and was awarded an S.T.D. degree by Catholic University in 1945.

With the massive return of war veterans to college, Notre Dame called him to be chaplain to the student veterans, which he did until becoming assistant professor and head of the Department of Religion in 1948. One year later he was named executive vice president of Notre Dame and in 1952 succeeded Reverend John J. Cavanaugh as president. The institution's reputation at that time centered on its football prowess, academic mediocrity, and production of loyal Catholics. Notre Dame's faculty were often chosen more for their orthodoxy than intellect.

Cavanaugh had succeeded in persuading alumni that academic quality was as important as athletic success, and the 32-year-old Hesburgh inherited an institution ready for excellence. He quickly let it be known that he was no great lover of football nor did he reverently value all the school's tradition. His consummate skill in public relations enabled him to convince alumni that football was not enough and that he had a dream of taking Cardinal Newman's 19th century "idea of a university" and forming Notre Dame into "America's first truly great Catholic university."

He began reforming by undertaking an eight-year building program which dramatically altered the campus skyline. He also restructured the control of the university away from the church and into the hands of a lay-dominated board of trustees. This act in itself set a precedent for other Catholic colleges and universities to follow. Over the first 20 years of Hesburgh's presidency the academic standards were raised, a high-quality faculty became relevant to both the hiring of staff and recruitment of students, salaries were brought up to a competitive level, the budget and endowment were increased tremendously, the curriculum was modernized, and in 1972 Notre Dame became coeducational. All of this was accomplished while continuing to retain the moral quality of the school. The basic thrust of a Notre Dame education continued to be the molding of character.

By 1955 Theodore Hesburgh began to catch the eye of the establishment. The National Science Foundation was the first to ask him to serve, and then the invitations for him to be a member here or an adviser there began to snowball. In 1957 President Eisenhower tapped him to be one of the first members of the newly formed Civil Rights Commission, and it was through membership on this body that Hesburgh derived his public fame. The commission recommended far-ranging legislative solutions to racial problems, most of which were not acceptable to Congress or the president. Hesburgh quickly became the commission's most outspoken member, advocating fair housing legislation and especially busing "as a solution to the 'hopeless' cycle of poor education in poor neighborhoods." He served 15 years on the commission, the final three (1969-1972) as chairman.

The same deep commitment to civil rights which brought him to Eisenhower's attention in 1957 cost him his participation on the Civil Rights Commission. President Nixon's Southern strategy—opposition to fair housing laws and the use of busing to achieve desegregation—was seriously challenged by the commission under Hesburgh's leadership. Shortly after the 1972 election he, along with 2,000 other appointed officials, was replaced in what the White House labeled a massive "housecleaning." Nixon showed his disdain for the Civil Rights Commission by neglecting to appoint a new chairman.

Hesburgh received a plethora of invitations to join private foundations, public commissions, and other service bodies. Capable as he was, it seemed at times as if he was simply "the necessary Catholic." He served on the National Science Board, as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, and on the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. The Vatican appointed him representative to the International Atomic Agency, and when President Johnson asked him in 1964 to take control of the space program he declined: "I couldn't see a Catholic priest handing out six billion dollars in contracts." He also refused President Nixon's 1969 offer to head the poverty program.

Despite the responsibilities of the Notre Dame presidency, Theodore Hesburgh remained very much involved in political and social affairs. He became extremely vocal in opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft, particularly following the Cambodian invasion. To many, this stance contradicted the tight control and suspension policy he exercised over student disruption at Notre Dame. He continued to be outspoken in many areas of concern, even publicly disagreeing with his church. His opposition to abortion was unwavering, but he believed the Vatican position on birth control to be a mistake. He supported celibacy for himself and those who choose it, but reminded his audience that the apostles were married and clergy in the Middle Ages "kept women." He disapproved of sex outside of marriage and was exceedingly proud of the fact that 93 percent of the marriages of Notre Dame alumni held together. He was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and answered his critics who said passage would have pushed women to become like men by saying, "I think women will have to work overtime to catch up with men at evildoing." He also advocated creation of a Palestinian homeland as part of an overall Middle East peace settlement.

Hesburgh's concern for the plight of illegal aliens (especially Hispanic) surfaced during the Johnson administration when he criticized the plight of the farm workers in the president's own state of Texas. In 1979 he became chairman of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, a body created by Congress and the president. He continued to be vocal about widespread abuses of aliens and the seeming public indifference toward these people. This activism extended to root causes of political immigration, repression, and the sanctuary movement. In 1979 he also became chairperson of the Overseas Development Council. His ministry was focussed on Notre Dame, but obviously he saw the world as his parish. His success in reforming that institution extended to the necessity he saw for reforming society's ills. In 1986 he announced that he would retire after delivering the commencement address to the Notre Dame class of 1987. His successor was associate provost Reverend Edward A. (Monk) Malloy.

After his retirement from academic life, Father Hesburgh was elevated to Professor Emeritus status (from 1987), and maintained an active involvement on the several boards and committees to which he was elected. He has written God, Country and Notre Dame, (1990), and Travels with Ted and Ned (1992.) He has also written and edited, with George Marsden, What Can Catholic Universities Learn from Protestant Examples? in The Challenge Promise of a Catholic University, University of Notre Dame Press, (1995); and the foreword to The Encyclopedia of Catholicism, San Francisco: Harper/Collins, (1995).

Father Ted, as he preferred to be known, received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Navy Distinguished Service Award, the Freedom Foundation Award, and the Hughes Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was also decorated as a Commander in l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He was a member of the Catholic Theological Society, American Philosophical Society, Council on Foreign Relations, and National Academy of Education.

Further Reading

The only biography of Hesburgh in general circulation is Joel R. Connelly and Howard J. Dooley, Hesburgh's Notre Dame (1972), which is a non-scholarly slick view of limited value. The popular periodical press of the 1960s and 1970s (TIME, Newsweek, LIFE, etc.) contain many articles on the man and by him as issues at Notre Dame and causes he was involved in became newsworthy. He also wrote numerous essays for a myriad of periodicals. The following books by Hesburgh should provide additional insight: Foreign Policy and Morality: Framework for a Moral Audit (with Louis J. Halle, 1979); God and the World of Man (1950); Patterns for Educational Growth (1958); The Hesburgh Papers: Higher Values in Higher Education (1979); The Humane Imperative: A Challenge for the Year 2000 (1974); Theology of Catholic Action (1945); and Thoughts for Our Times (a series beginning in 1962). □

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