Late last Thursday night, the Notre Dame community, and honestly the world as a whole, had to say goodbye to a very special and influential man, Father Theodore Hesburgh. Before I delve into who this man was and discuss what he accomplished throughout his amazing life, I want to share with you my initial, emotional reaction at hearing about his passing. While some of you may have already read it, here is the Facebook post I wrote immediately after I learned of his death, as I was trying to cope with this unexpected and depressing news.
“Today we mourn the loss of a great man and patriarch of the entire Notre Dame family. He served for 35 years as the university’s president, but his impact on the Irish community goes far beyond his time in office. From his work on civil rights that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 to running with the Olympic torch that now resides in his private office atop the library named in his honor, “Father Ted” was always working to make “our lady’s university” a better place for its students. His work and dedication has played such a large part in the lives of every graduate of the university, that his impact can be felt in all of the good that Notre Dame alumni have done throughout the world. Whether you were lucky enough to actually meet him or merely talked of him in rumors about how to sneak into his “penthouse” via his secret elevator, every student who was lucky enough to study under the Golden Dome had an enormous amount of respect for this man and his service. He will be missed by all of ND Nation, but he will never be forgotten, as his works and wisdom will forever be reminders of what it means to lead a fulfilling life in service of others. As we mourn this great loss and celebrate his incredible life, it is important to remember that we, the University of Notre Dame graduates that he dedicated his lifetime to serving, are his legacy. It is now our privilege as brothers and sisters of the Notre Dame community to live our lives the way he taught us, with overflowing kindness, unending compassion, and an insatiable curiosity.”
As you can tell from my words, even though I never got the privilege of meeting him personally, Father Hesburgh had an enormous impact on me. In recognition of this amazing man, I would like to share with you a bit about who he was, and more importantly, how he was able to make such a large influence on the lives of others.
Theodore Martin Hesburgh was born in 1917 as one of five children, and in his 97 years he achieved some truly astonishing things. He took his vows and was ordained as a priest with the Holy Cross Congregation in 1943, served as the president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years from 1952 to 1987, and made a major impact on numerous political and theological issues for over 50 years. He had a Guinness world record of over 150 honorary degrees, was appointed to over a dozen White House positions under six different presidents, and even unofficially broke the speed record of 2,193 miles per hour at the age of 62. He held many high ranking positions and was awarded countless, prestigious awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and serving as the chairman of the board for the Rockefeller Foundation. Even with everything that he accomplished throughout his life and all of the accolades he was given though, those of us who are lucky enough to call ourselves sons and daughters of our lady’s university will remember him for a much different reason. We will remember this incredible individual, not for what he achieved throughout his life, but for the way he achieved it.
Father Hesburgh lived his entire life in the service of others. Whether it was serving his students on campus, serving his country by working with the president on civil rights issues, or serving the worldwide, Catholic community by bringing more progressive thinking to the Church, he was always trying to make the world a better place for everyone else. What is even more impressive though, is that he did all of these amazing things, not because he wanted prestige, fame, or money, but because it was the right thing to do. Even when he knew his decisions or actions would not be in agreement with major political or religious groups, like his disagreement with President Nixon over the use of federal troops to limit campus anti-war protests or when he went against the Catholic Church by endorsing the search for truth over religious indoctrination in 1967, he would still do what he believed was best for others. He made such a huge impact on the world simply by living his life with a generous, kind heart, a ravenously curious mind, and the unquestioning belief in doing what was right. This is the most important gift he gave those of us who were fortunate enough to be touched by his work. He modeled how to lead a fulfilling, successful, and meaningful life for thousands of Notre Dame graduates, and by showing us how to live in service to the world, he gave us the ability to change it. It is these teachings, and the work done by Notre Dame alumni because of them, that will be his lasting legacy.
“Father Ted” probably had a greater impact on my life than any other person that I have never met in person. His never-ending devotion to living life the right way and in the service of others is in large part the example I try to follow as I pursue my mission of helping people lead happier lives. In addition, his lifelong pursuit of truth and passion for learning was a major influence in my own insatiable thirst for knowledge. The most important lesson I took from Father Hesburgh however, was how crucial it is to have the courage to do what you know is right, even when you know that the people around you will disagree with your choice. You have to have the strength and conviction to stand up for what you believe in, in order to make a difference in the world and improve the lives of others. This is something that he modeled with perfection for half a century, and it is the standard I am trying to live up to in my own journey. I, like so many other loyal sons and daughters of Notre Dame, will always remember Father Hesburgh, and he will forever be an influential part of our lives. We now have the privilege of continuing his work by making our own mark on the world using the lessons he taught us, and in doing so ensuring that his legacy and impact on the world will never be forgotten.
“My basic principle is that you don’t make decisions because they are easy; you don’t make them because they are cheap; you don’t make them because they’re popular; you make them because they’re right.”