Hesburgh, Notre Dame president for 35 years, dies at 97

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who in 35 years as president of the University of Notre Dame raised the academic stature of a school mainly known for football, opened enrollment to women and changed the role of Catholic higher education in the U.S., has died. He was 97.

Hesburgh died late Thursday at Holy Cross House adjacent to the university, according to a statement from the school, the nation’s largest Catholic university. He lived on the South Bend campus about 140 miles north of Indianapolis.

“We mourn today a great man and faithful priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame and touched the lives of many,” Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said in a statement on the school’s website. “With his leadership, charisma and vision, he turned a relatively small Catholic college known for football into one of the nation’s great institutions for higher learning.”

During Hesburgh’s tenure as president starting in 1952, enrollment doubled to 9,600, the faculty tripled and the endowment jumped to $350 million from $9 million, according to Notre Dame’s website. Forty new buildings rose on the 1,250-acre grounds and governance was transferred to a board of trustees that included lay members. Off campus, Hesburgh became an advocate for racial justice and world peace.

Upon his retirement in 1987, Newsweek called him “the nation’s most recognized Roman Catholic priest and, arguably, the most influential.” He had “transformed Notre Dame from a Midwestern university with a national reputation into a national university with an international following,” Newsweek said.

Higher standards

Time magazine put Hesburgh on its cover in 1962 and credited him with boosting academics, citing improved entrance test scores that narrowed the gap with secular “prestige” schools.

He also weeded out underperforming faculty and administrators, recruiting replacements from the University of Chicago, Harvard Business School and other elite institutions.

“The model for much of what we were trying to do was the Ivy League,” Hesburgh wrote in his 1990 memoir, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” written with Jerry Reedy. “We wanted to be a Catholic Princeton.”

In 1967, Notre Dame became the first Catholic university put under the control of a board that wasn’t dominated by priests, according to Hesburgh. The move ended Vatican control and bolstered academic freedom.

Civil rights

Co-ed enrollment began in 1972. The decision was “every bit as momentous as changing the governance,” Hesburgh wrote. “With the admission of women we had doubled our source of applicants, and that enabled us to raise our admission standards even higher.”

Hesburgh was named to the new U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The six-person panel, one of his 16 presidential appointments, held hearings throughout the U.S. South on the denial of voting rights to blacks and, later, investigated discrimination in employment, housing and the administration of justice. The commission’s work led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

That year he received the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Lyndon Johnson.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Hesburgh chairman of the commission. The following year, the panel issued a report accusing the government of inadequately enforcing civil rights laws. The commission criticized the administration’s policies toward the poor and minorities, and its opposition to busing to remedy school segregation.

‘Proudest moments’

The week after Nixon’s re-election in 1972, the president removed the priest from the commission. Hesburgh said it was one of his “proudest moments,” according to Newsweek.

Theodore Martin Hesburgh was born on May 25, 1917, in Syracuse, New York, to Anne Murphy Hesburgh and Theodore Bernard Hesburgh, a plate-glass plant manager of German-French descent.

Hesburgh, the second of five children, attended Catholic schools. “From the age of 6, I knew what I wanted to be,” he said. “Priest.”

In 1934, Hesburgh enrolled in the Holy Cross Seminary at Notre Dame, then moved to Rome where he received a bachelor of philosophy degree from the Gregorian University in 1939.

Hesburgh was ordained into the priesthood at Notre Dame in 1943. Two years later, he earned a doctorate in sacred theology at Catholic University in Washington.

Returning to South Bend to teach moral theology, his redesign of the course led to an assignment to revamp other classes. By 1948 he was named chairman of the religion department. The next year he became Notre Dame’s executive vice president.

Welcoming Obama

Hesburgh was 35 when he was named president.

In retirement, “Father Ted,” as he was known on campus, maintained an office in Hesburgh Library, famous for the “Touchdown Jesus” mural visible from the football stadium.

In 2009, President Barrack Obama was invited as the commencement speaker. The decision was opposed by 74 Catholic bishops and many alumni because of his support for abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research. Hesburgh defended the invitation.

“No speaker who has ever come to Notre Dame has changed the University,” he told a group of alumni and parents, according to a New York Times account. “But, quite often, the very fact of being here has changed the speaker.”

Obama, in his address, paid tribute to Hesburgh and his work on the Civil Rights Commission.

“Father Hesburgh has long spoken of this institution as both a lighthouse and a crossroads,” Obama said. “The lighthouse that stands apart, shining with the wisdom of the Catholic tradition.”

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