Following the death of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. — the eminent president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame — on Feb. 26, 2015 at the age of 97, thousands gathered at the Joyce Center to celebrate the life of the man known by most simply as "Fr. Ted."
Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., University president, began the evening by welcoming this esteemed lineup and the crowd of more than 10,000 who gathered for a final celebration of Fr. Ted’s life. The gathering followed a showing of some 12,000 people who paid their final respects over the preceding days during visitation, wake and funeral services in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Several hundred more lined the road to burial site, for which Fr. Jenkins was especially grateful. “I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Fr. Ted, than to see you line the path to his final resting place,” Jenkins said.
After a well-delivered and well-received joke — a fitting nod to Fr. Ted’s famous sense of humor — Fr. Jenkins began the evening with one last welcome: “Ted, we know you’re listening. Please pray for us. And enjoy the program.”
One by one, speakers took the stage at the introduction of emcee Anne Thompson of NBCNews, and shared personal reflections of their experiences with Fr. Ted, beginning with his leadership in the area of higher education. “Fr. Ted said one of his greatest accomplishments was making Notre Dame co-ed,” Thompson said. “I want to express the unending gratitude the daughters of Notre Dame have for Fr. Ted’s vision.”
William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University lauded Fr. Hesburgh’s commitment to openness and mutual respect in the academy, while Sen. Joe Donnelly (IN) spoke of the increasing academic rigor Fr. Ted sought to instill at Notre Dame during his tenure. “You knew when you had to go back to the library” after a conversation with Fr. Ted, Donnelly remembered.
Other speakers elaborated on Fr. Ted’s unique ability to motivate toward achieving a goal. Former football head coach Lou Holtz delivered an entertaining remembrance which finished with the admonition, “Let’s live the way Fr. Hesburgh wanted us to. That’s the only way we can ever repay him.”
Former Sen. Harris Wofford (PA) recounted how Fr. Ted brokered a breakthrough on the landmark civil rights bill by bringing the sides together to talk about living a good life, over a bottle of bourbon.
University Trustee Martin Rodgers relayed the story of his famous op-ed in the Observer, critical of the University’s efforts to increase diversity on campus. He received a call from Fr. Ted’s office the next day, offering him a position in the admissions office, and a chance to improve the University in the area of his concern. Rodgers remembers, “A counselor to presidents ... here he is taking the advice, and empowering the likes of a lowly freshman.” Motivating indeed.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of Fr. Ted’s legendary leadership was delivered by Pres. Barack Obama, appearing via pre-recorded message. The president referenced Fr. Ted’s work on the Civil Rights Commission, and concluded, “That’s the leader we celebrate today. He taught us that together, we can do incredible things we can’t do alone.”
Famously, those leadership abilities were put to service for our country, and many were the anecdotes of Fr. Ted’s work on behalf of our nation and our world. Former senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming recalled serving with Fr. Hesburgh on the Select Committee on Immigration and Refugee Policy. During a humorous and charming reflection, Simpson garnered applause by reciting the credo to which he and Fr. Ted held: “If you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t, then do.”
It was that thinking that likely led Fr. Ted to suggest to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that she should bring the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president to the Notre Dame retreat in Wisconsin to discuss peace. “My mind was spinning,” Rice remembered in her remarks.
Former president Jimmy Carter offered anecdotes from his friendship with Fr. Ted, which began with a phone call about campaign strategy, as Carter recalled. “I’m in trouble with the Roman Catholics,” he said. “I know it,” Fr. Ted replied. That was the beginning of a long-standing relationship that led to one of the most famous Fr. Hesburgh anecdotes we have, the flight aboard the top-secret SR-71 “Blackbird.” Carter relayed the story with grace and humor, confirming that indeed Fr. Ted helped to set a then-world record for speed.
Most fittingly, it was Fr. Ted’s work as a priest that left the most indelible impact on even these distinguished guests. Donnelly recalled, “When the light was on in Fr. Ted’s office, it was there for the student ... who lost a parent. Or who didn’t know how they were going to pay the tuition bill.” Rice added, “(Fr. Ted) always knew when we needed a friend.”
Rev. Paul Doyle, C.S.C. and others spoke of his deep devotion to the Holy Mother and his faith. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick said that devotion to faith extended to and included his love for the University of Notre Dame. McCarrick observed, “This beloved University is his gift to the Church.”
And so it was most appropriate for the final moment in this memorial service to belong to Fr. Ted himself, with the playing of a pre-recorded message of blessing. For those who knew his voice well, and even for those in attendance who heard his voice for the first time, the ultimate tribute was to hear him perform one final act in the role he aspired to and lived out so well — that of priest.
“I’d like to give you an Irish blessing,” began the message. “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warmly on your face. And may the rain fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the very palm of his hand. Amen.”