It was October of 1965. My friend David White, an Irish Catholic kid from Boston, and I, a black Catholic kid from many places, were having one of those earnest, post-midnight conversations that college kids have — I hope they still do — about the state of the world. In this case, the conversation was about civil rights and why America was so bedeviled by the issue of race.
At some point, the same thought entered both of our heads: We were at the University of Notre Dame, so why not go and talk to the person on campus who probably knew as much about civil rights and race relations as anyone, the university’s president, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh.
We were freshmen and had heard that if you saw the lights on in his office on the third floor of the gold-domed administration building, you could go up, knock on his door and he would take the time to talk with you, no matter the hour.
So we excused ourselves from our dorm, Farley Hall, crossed the freshman quad, saw the lights on in his office, walked three flights up and knocked on the door to the president’s office. After a few seconds, the door opened and there stood Father Hesburgh, jacketless but with his Roman collar in place. He obviously had been hard at work.
Nevertheless, he invited us in and, after hearing our concerns, spent fully half an hour talking with us. He described the work of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, of which he was a charter member, and how it had helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, which had been signed just a few months earlier in 1965. I realized later that what he really was talking about was hope, and he left us hopeful.
From the age of 6, Father Hesburgh said in his autobiography, he knew he wanted to be a priest, which he described as “a kind of bridge between God and humankind.” Priesthood involves service, and Hesburgh was about nothing if not service.
His obituaries will recount all his presidential appointments, Vatican appointments, boards, commissions and other high-profile service activities. But the acts of service that stick in my mind are smaller ones, acts of personal pastoral service and teaching.
A friend who also was at Notre Dame in the mid-1960s tells of the time a fellow student, a member of the student government, was gravely injured in a car accident in eastern Pennsylvania. My friend was dispatched by the student body president to be with the injured student and his parents at the hospital. As he sat with them, who should appear in the middle of the night to comfort the family but Father Hesburgh. He had been traveling in the region, gotten word of the accident, rented a car and driven far out of his way to minister to one of his students and his family.
As a Notre Dame alumnus, I attended many events on campus over the years where Father Ted would say grace or offer an invocation. Never did he simply offer a perfunctory prayer. He always made his remarks a teaching moment — usually about the obligations of those who have to those who have not. I’m pretty sure that’s what motivated his work on civil rights and race.
Last year, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the admission of Notre Dame’s first black student, my friend David Krashna and I published “Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame,” a book of essays by black graduates about their experiences at the university. Father Ted graciously agreed to provide the foreword for the book. That was fitting, because from the oldest essayist to almost the very youngest, the most powerful and consistent theme was what might be called The Hesburgh Factor: the importance of Father Ted’s personal care and attention to students who were, especially in the early days, an almost minuscule minority.
J. Gary Cooper, a member of the class of 1958 who went on to become a major general in the Marine Corps and the U.S. ambassador to Jamaica, described how Hesburgh would drop by his dorm room in the evenings to check on him and his roommate, who also was black. “(It) soon became clear,” he wrote, “that he just wanted to make sure we were OK. Integration on campus was still relatively new and it was important that it go smoothly.”
Bonita Bradshaw, a member of the class of 1977, described visiting Father Ted after experiencing racism on campus. “He spoke about ignorance and expectation and he listened to me,” she wrote. “I felt somewhat relieved and totally respected. He told me his door was always open and I used it.”
“Longevity has its place,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said the night before he was murdered in Memphis in April 1968. But it also has its drawbacks. One of them is that many younger people will be unable to appreciate fully the significance of the life of a long-lived person. Suffice it to say that Father Ted Hesburgh was a giant in American life in the latter half of the 20th century, and even into the 21st. But for all the drama of his life as a public servant, what will live on is the impact in hundreds and thousands of individual lives of his service as a priest, a bridge between God and humankind.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
Don Wycliff is a 1969 graduate of Notre Dame and is the co-editor, with David Krashna, of “Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame.”
Reprinted by permission, Chicago Tribune, in NDWorks.