The Notre Dame Archives and Hesburgh Libraries recently opened an online portal featuring materials from the papers of longtime University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh: https://hesburghportal.nd.edu
Important stories of Hesburgh’s life and career are showcased by select photographs, video, audio, and writings, mostly from his own papers housed at the Notre Dame Archives. The hope is that the items digitized for this portal will aid scholars world-wide, but will also whet their research appetite to dig deeper into the collections in the Notre Dame Archives. The finding aid for the Father Theodore M. Hesburgh Papers shows the vast amount of materials originating from Hesburgh, but there are many other collections and resources within the Notre Dame Archives and Hesburgh Libraries that help to tell his remarkable life story.
As an adviser to presidents, special envoy to popes, theologian, author, educator and activist, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who would have turned 100 today, was for decades considered the most influential Catholic priest in America. Although his career included sixteen presidential appointments, his relationship with President John F. Kennedy was especially noteworthy. Born just four days apart in May 1917, their paths would cross multiple times in the 1950s-1960s. One of the more memorable Notre Dame moments was when Fr. Hesburgh presented President Kennedy with the Laetare Medal in the Oval Office on November 22, 1961.
When John F. Kennedy took the oath of office of the President of the United States on January 20, 1961, he was the first Catholic to do so. As such, his name quickly rose to the top of nominations for the Laetare Medal, an honor Notre Dame has bestowed on exemplary American Catholics since 1883. Fearing a loyalty to the Vatican, factions in America were apprehensive of a Catholic president. Traditionally, the recipient of the medal is announced on Laetare Sunday in Lent, which was on March 12th in 1961. Not wanting to ruffle feathers so early in his presidency, Notre Dame was hesitant to bestow Kennedy the the honor during his first year in office. Breaking tradition of keeping the name secret until Laetare Sunday, University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh notified Kennedy in advance on February 14th, giving him the option to decline if it would cause too much public consternation (https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKPOF-030-011.aspx).
Kennedy accepted the offer, but the presentation wouldn’t occur until November 22, 1961. The Laetare presentation ceremony was not yet a staple of commencement exercises, and Notre Dame officials more often took the medal to the recipients rather than have them come to campus. On November 22, 1961, Fr. Hesburgh happened to be meeting with Kennedy and others for a Commission on Civil Rights meeting. Later that afternoon, Fr. Hesburgh and Notre Dame Vice President Rev. Edmund P. Joyce presented Kennedy the Laetare Medal in the Oval Office.
The Laetare Medal presentation was not Kennedy’s first or last interaction with Notre Dame and Fr. Hesburgh. Kennedy attended several Notre Dame football games, was the commencement speaker for winter 1950, and received the 1957 Patriot of the Year Award, and served on Notre Dame’s Liberal and Fine Arts Council. During Kennedy’s administration, Fr. Hesburgh served on the Commission on Civil Rights and the board of the National Science Foundation. Fr. Hesburgh played a significant role shaping in Kennedy’s 1961 Peace Corps initiative, making Notre Dame one of the first university sponsors and training centers for the program.
Kennedy’s untimely death exactly two years after the presentation of the Laetare Medal brought an abrupt end to the relationship. There is always room to speculate what might have been, but it is highly likely that Kennedy would have continued seeking the council of Fr. Hesburgh as so many other United States Presidents did.
I mourn the passing of Father Ted in a deeply personal as well as professional way.
In 1978, when I was an ambitious but still young archivist, he believed in me enough to give me the chance to be University Archivist, passing over others who on paper looked to be far more qualified at that point in time than I was. I had little doubt, of course, that I was equipped to do the job, but I think Father Ted’s choice startled more than a few. He could, and did, take those kinds of chances when it came to people. Because it wasn’t just who you were on paper that mattered to him, it was who he believed you to be, and perhaps more importantly what you were capable of becoming that was most important. Father Ted inspired so many of us to become all that he saw in us, even when others may have been more short sighted.
I had the privilege of participating in one of the early “Fly-In” weekends here at Notre Dame, probably in the mid to late ‘70s, when very wealthy potential donors were brought to campus for a very special set of events. The intent, of course, was to engage them to the point they would make a substantial financial commitment to the University. Everything about the weekend was top drawer, but what impressed me the most was what happened at the Saturday night dinner. After a rather lavish meal, served on the 14th floor of the Memorial Library, everyone pushed back from their tables and relocated themselves in comfortable seating with brandies in hand. Father Ted lit a cigar and proceeded to share his vision for what Notre Dame had the potential to become. As his smoke slowly circled above him, I watched his audience become totally mesmerized. His effect on everyone in the room was palpable. I’d never seen anything like it and will never forget it.
I’m not sure Father Ted’s charisma was as evident in large public settings as it was privately, although surely he was a master of the public event. But in private, I think it was probably near impossible to refuse anything he asked of you. The paradox here is he mostly didn’t ask. He didn’t have to. You knew.
Father Ted knew how to bind people to a shared vision, of intellectual community, of religious commitment, of personal, moral integrity. He was the consummate leader. He never micro-managed: if he had enough confidence in you to give you a job, he respected your professional competence and gave you the freedom to get the job done. Importantly, he also provided you with the resources you’d need to succeed.
Father Ted gave as generously as he took. The support he gave me, personally, and the Archives that he entrusted to my care, spanned all the years I served him and this university. He used his many personal contacts to solicit collections to enrich our holdings. The door to his office was always open to me, for advice and counsel, for assistance. He gave me enormous freedom to make judgment calls on access to information, relying on the fact I also knew when to defer a decision and kick an issue upstairs. I never left his office without also receiving his prayers and blessings. In 1986, as his presidency was winding down, he surprised me and my husband with a Special Presidential Award. He called it a “two-fer,” to recognize two historians who had committed their professional lives to Notre Dame. But I knew, for my part, it was also his way of telling me our job together was not done when he left office. Remember what I said about binding.
The University Archives was really transformed by Father Ted’s sense of history and the path upon which he propelled us. Anyone who knew him knew he had a strong sense of his own place in history, but that place was as one player amongst many, one point in time along a continuum. His support of the Archives did not begin with me, and our dynamic was certainly different than what he experienced with my immediate two predecessors, two Holy Cross priests, who were the only other University Archivists during Father Ted’s tenure as president. In 1952, when Father Ted took office as president, Father Tom McAvoy had been University Archivist since 1929. A formidable figure within the Community, he embodied all things having to do with history on campus, and by all accounts on occasion was a thorn in Father Ted’s side. When Father Tom Blantz succeeded him, upon Father McAvoy’s death in 1969, Father Ted now had an Archivist whose gentle and unassuming style could not have been in greater contrast to the man he replaced. What unified these three men, however, was a common past and present, of Community and of the University. The history in the Archives was theirs.
When I came along, I was different. I was young, I was a lay person, I was a married woman. Many thought any one of those factors could have disqualified me from consideration for the particular administrative position at Notre Dame that I wanted, and wanted badly. But they didn’t, not singly or collectively. I was offered the opportunity to take responsibility for an operation with a reputation for excellence, and to take it to the next level. I have always believed my appointment by Father Ted was evidence of not only how much he valued the past, but how willing he was to break from it if he thought it was the right thing to do. It was made absolutely clear to me that I was Father Ted’s choice as University Archivist, it was his decision and his alone, and that I would “serve at the pleasure of the President.”
For me, it has, indeed, been a pleasure. I trust I have served him well and never gave him cause to regret his decision. He will be sorely missed.
Wendy Clauson Schlereth
February 26, 2015
A selection of favorite photos of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh
chosen by the Notre Dame Archives’ staff:
On June 21, 1964, Soldier Field in Chicago played host to the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights. The principle speakers were Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President and Founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame.
The rally, whose operating costs reached $25,000, opened with two hours of jazz and gospel music and entertainment, including a 5000-voice choir led by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. General admission was free, but priority seating was available for $2-5. Nearly 150 various organizations promoted the event, distributing 1.5 million flyers in Chicago, and brought their members to the rally by the bus-full. A crowd estimated of between 57,000-75,000 people of diverse walks of life, races, and faiths endured early rain and later sweltering heat in Soldier Field, standing in solidarity of racial equality.
The Illinois Rally was somewhat anti-climatic as the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill was imminent – President Lyndon Johnson would sign the bill into law on July 2, 1964. Some were disappointed with the turnout, thinking that it was not as large as it could have or should have been (days before the event, the leaders had estimated the crowd could tip 100,000. The morning rain was blamed for the lower attendance). However, King said to the crowd, “We have come a long, long way in the civil rights struggle, but let me remind you that we have a long, long way to go. Passage of the civil rights bill does not mean that we have reached the promised land in civil rights.” He stressed that the bill alone was not enough – “vigorous enforcement” was essential to success.
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh’s involvement in the national Civil Rights Movement dates back to November 7, 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower named him to the newly formed Civil Rights Commission. Hesburgh, then 40, was the youngest of the six member-commission. Hesburgh would remain on the Civil Rights Commission until 1972.
At the Illinois Rally, Hesburgh echoed King’s sentiments that there was still work to do: “A long road and a hot summer are ahead of us. Every Negro American who does not use his opportunity now is a traitor to his race. Be proud to be a Negro. Demand respect by being worthy of respect. We want to strive for human dignity with you.”
At the time, the Illinois Rally was the second largest Civil Rights demonstration, after the 1963 March on Washington. While there was a small group of protesters outside of Soldier Field, the Illinois Rally was overall a peaceful and successful event.
For more information about the Illinois Rally, please see the following: