Day 16: Omaha to York, NE

Oh boy, today was really wet. The storms were so heavy at times that we had to stop for a bit until they passed. We’d get back on the road, but then another wave would come. There was so much rain so fast that it left ponds on many of the Nebraska cornfields. They weren’t really thunderstorms—not much thunder and lightning—but the water came in torrents, and the sky stayed dark and ominous.

Stormy sky enroute to York

Stormy sky on the road to York

Tonight we had a great steak dinner. Jim, a member of my Science Advisory Council, came up from St. Louis to take me out for a special meal. Every year, he has driven long distances to take us out to dinner as a way of supporting the ride. He always lifts my spirits with his flashing green lights and his great Irish pride.  This year he brought us green flashing sun glasses!  Jim is such a generous alumnus and I have been very fortunate to have had him on my advisory council for the last seven years.

Jim

Jim

As I have been meeting with alumni or giving a Universal Notre Dame (UND) Night celebration talks along the ride this year, the subject of Father Hesburgh’s passing in February often comes up. He was such a towering figure at Notre Dame and had such a positive impact across the country and around the world. We all miss him, and our conversations are always about how grateful we are for his rich and full life.

I met Fr. Hesburgh for the first time when I was interviewing for the position of dean in 2008. I knew his reputation, and I was pretty intimidated as I waited in his office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library, surrounded by a mockup of the Olympic torch and incredible photographs of Father Hesburgh riding in a supersonic plane and standing in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr.

For all his wisdom, courage, and passion for justice, the virtue that I saw when he entered the room was magnanimity. He welcomed me with kind humility and turned the conversation to a subject that interests me—science—then gave me his priestly blessing as I left. Later, when Fr. Hesburgh found out that I loved to fish, he took me on some musky-fishing trips to Notre Dame’s research center at Land O’Lakes, the site of historic gatherings where he helped advance civil rights and an important understanding of academic freedom at Catholic universities. I am so grateful to have known this his great man as a mentor, a friend, and a fishing buddy.

Fishing with Fr. Hesburgh

I wrote the following letter to the students, published in The Observer, last March:

In my seven years at Notre Dame, I have had the opportunity to get to know Fr. Hesburgh as a mentor, a fisherman, an inspiration and—what meant the most to him—a priest. In fact, the first time I met him in his office atop the library while I was interviewing for the dean of the College of Science position, he offered to give me a blessing, which I eagerly accepted.

I remember being nervous as I waited to meet Fr. Hesburgh, whose global renown was apparent in the vivid reminders seen in his honors, photos, and mementos that filled his office. I was unprepared for the gentle, grandfatherly figure who entered, smoking a cigar that added to the room’s accumulated ambiance. Within minutes, I felt comfortable in his presence. Of all the fields he could have addressed, he focused on science, with a characteristic generosity and concern for the listener instead of himself. I learned about his role in the start of the National Science Foundation, his Medal of Science from the National Academy, his work in energy and nuclear power and his extensive impact on science even as a non-scientist. He also told me about the hiring of scientist Morris Pollard, the first Jewish faculty member, as an expression of the universal reach he intended for the premier Catholic research institution. Needless to say, I was so inspired by Fr. Hesburgh and his vision of Notre Dame that, when offered the position as dean, I was honored to accept.

After I arrived on campus, I was lucky enough to get an invitation to go fishing with Fr. Hesburgh at Land O’Lakes, the University’s 7,500-acre Environmental Research Center. It was a day of fishing, smoking cigars and telling stories that ranged from how he convinced a United States President to get him a ride on a supersonic jet to how a Catholic priest is qualified to mentor people getting married. Fr. Hesburgh explained that he knew it was a bad idea for a man to give his wife a toaster on their first anniversary. He was witty and humorous, caring and compassionate, serious and ever the teacher, wisely imparting lessons in every conversation. That fishing boat was the relaxed scene of an all-day seminar.

Land O’Lakes is a historic place primarily because of Fr. Hesburgh. It is the site of a pivotal meeting led by Fr. Hesburgh that resulted in a major statement—named for the place—that defined the role of a Catholic university in the modern world. Fr. Hesburgh also took the politically-divided Civil Rights Commission on a fishing trip to the site more than 50 years ago, and this is where he managed to help reach significant agreements that became the basis of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was incredible for me to be at the same location, to sit at the same table and fish on the same lakes as those on the Civil Rights Commission. I could feel the presence of the past. I was so fortunate to fish on those lakes with him during several fall breaks.

Fr. Hesburgh was a great mentor to me, especially in the way he modeled virtuous leadership. The stories from the past—his stature in the Church, the nation and the academy—would have seemed unbelievable without watching his courage, his humility and his humor in ordinary settings. On one of our fishing trips, he said, “Greg, you do not need to call me Fr. Hesburgh, please call me Fr. Ted.” Like any undergraduate in the presence of a revered professor, I was never able to do it. He will always be Fr. Hesburgh to me.

I also wrote this poem for a prayer card in the College of Science to express how much Fr. Hesburgh meant to me.

You transformed Notre Dame by your virtues as a powerful force for good in the world.
Your courage taught us to stand for truth and justice, for you encountered challenges with grace.
You humility taught us service, for you welcomed every person and affirmed their dignity.
Your compassion taught us sacrifice, for you championed the powerless.
Your humor taught us joy, for you revealed the pleasure and beauty of life well lived.
Your love of science accelerated our ability to elevate the well-being of the human community.
Your devotion to Our Lady inspires us to advance the mission and vision that is Notre Dame.



1 Comment so far

  1.    Giovanna Mastrovich on June 13th, 2015

    Let’s hope that rain follows you all the way to California! Best wishes for a continued safe journey as you finish up this momentous ride.