I just read that Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, the onetime president of the University of Notre Dame, has died. He was 97.
I’ve often been disappointed by the college or university presidents I’ve served under or observed from afar, but I got to know Father Hesburgh in a casual way when I was a grad student at Notre Dame in the 1990s, and he was unquestionably an exception to that rule. His office, and my cubicle, were on the same floor (ominously, the 13th floor) of the library, and for some reason we both used to get to the library at the same time every morning. We’d then ride the elevator together and talk philosophy along the way, about which he was uncommonly knowledgeable and insightful. I liked him, but was perennially intimidated by him, and tried to let him do the talking–typically as he fired questions at me. My strategy didn’t really work, but he seemed pleased with our conversations anyway. He’d wish me well as we got out, and then head over to his office as I disappeared into the stacks. It’s one of my (many) fond memories of grad school at Notre Dame.
The New York Times’s obituary tells the whole story. He took many courageous stands–for the University’s intellectual autonomy from the Church, for civil rights, against the Vietnam war, against coercive student demonstrations–but personally the one that stands out for me is the stand (of sorts) that he took against collegiate athletics:
Father Hesburgh understood the special role football played in Notre Dame’s reputation. But he was not a huge football fan, and he resented the influence that collegiate sports had on higher education. At his inauguration as president in 1952, he was appalled when local newspapers sent sportswriters to cover the event, and he refused to cooperate with photographers who asked him to pose with a football.
“I’m not the football coach,” he barked at the surprised journalists. “I’m the president.”
With those words, he won one for academics.
I didn’t know him well enough to say, sincerely, that I’ll “miss” him. But he was a great man. I’m grateful to have known him. And he’ll be hard to forget.
Postscript. I vaguely seem to remember Ayn Rand’s praising Father Hesburgh for something in one of her essays, but I don’t remember the context, and can’t find the essay. Not that it really matters, but if anyone can find the reference and tell me in the combox, I’d appreciate it.