By Meghan Tribe
A banner depicting Fr. Ted Hesburgh hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on a lamp post in front of the Main Building at the University of Notre Dame as the university commemorates his life, legacy with memorial services from March 3-4. By Meghan Tribe
More than 12,000 people paid their final respects to former president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh at the University of Notre Dame two weeks ago.
Beginning with a wake and visitation that continued through the night, the celebration of Hesburgh’s life culminated March 4 with a private funeral mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Among the crowd gathered at the Church, including 120 priests, six bishops and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington, D.C.
Rev. John I. Jenkins, current Notre Dame president, delivered the homily at the service, reflecting on the legacy of his friend and mentor. “How can we sum up the remarkable life of an admired university president, a champion of civil rights, peace and the poor, friend of so many,” Jenkins said.
“Father Ted gave us the answer; he was first and foremost, a priest. That vocation drove him to build a great Catholic university, it gave his work in his public life its moral focus, it shaped his generosity in all of his personal interactions.”
Hesburgh served as president of the university for 35 years until he stepped down in 1987. He chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1969 to 1972 and held 16 presidential appointments. He was the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000 from President Bill Clinton and received the Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian honor—in 1964 from President Lyndon Johnson.
Under Hesburgh’s leadership, Notre Dame saw substantial expansion as it turned into one of the premier Catholic research universities in the country. Women were first admitted in 1972. Also during Hesburgh’s presidency the student body doubled to 9,600 and faculty nearly tripled to 950, and the university’s annual operating budget increased from $9.7 million to $176.6 million. During the same period, the university endowment increased from $9 million to $350 million.
Those not able to access the private funeral mass at the Basilica gathered around television sets at the campus student union to watch the live stream of the services. Dan Anderson, who graduated from Notre Dame in 2013, traveled back to pay his respects.
“As a Catholic, he’s a model as to how I should live my life as a Catholic,” Anderson said. “For any politician, he did so much to advance causes of civil rights and of justice and peace. And for any person in general, I just think it shows the impact you can have on the world if you live a life of service and dedication to others.”
Immediately after the funeral services, hundreds of Notre Dame students, faculty and alumni lined the half-mile procession route from the Basilica to Hesburgh’s burial site at the Holy Cross Cemetery. Among the crowd was Nicole Driscoll, 23, a graduate student at the university.
Driscoll said she got to read to Hesburgh, who was losing his sight, in his office a few times during her first year at Notre Dame. “I would go up and we would read either The New York Times or Time Magazine, and every afternoon he would have his regular two cookies, a cup of coffee and a cigar,” Driscoll said. “They were always just great afternoons spent with him.”
In Chicago, Notre Dame alumnus and former Chicago Bear Chris Zorich expressed his grief at Hesburgh’s passing, but he also recounted fond memories of one of the men he credited with putting Notre Dame athletics on the map.
The relationship between Hesburgh and Zorich grew when Zorich was chosen to serve on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics from 2008-2010.
In 1989, Hesburgh served as co-chairman of the Knight Commission that in 1991 called for a reform agenda in collegiate sports centered on academic and financial integrity. As a result of this report, the NCAA adopted the academic performance system that now requires teams to be on track to graduate 50 percent of their players as eligible for postseason championships. “It was really groundbreaking at the time,” Zorich said.
The last conversation between Zorich and Hesburgh was around 2010, but Zorich said, “I cherish the fact that I got to smoke a couple cigars with him and just kind of […] sit at his feet and just kind of listen.”