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Interview by Todd C. Ream and Brian C. Clark


Something So Good, We Want to Share It

A conversation with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh

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Editor's Note: The March/April 2010 issue of Books & Culture included an interview with the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh by Todd C. Ream and Brian C. Clark. Father Hesburgh, who served as president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, died last week, and I asked Todd if he would write a new preface to the interview. (Since the piece first appeared in B&C, Todd has moved from Indiana Wesleyan University to nearby Taylor University, where he is professor of higher education; he is also a research fellow with Baylor University's Insitute for the Study of Religion.) Here's what Todd wrote:

I knew the moment would come. In April 2014, the last time I saw Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh, he was accepting, albeit begrudgingly, his need to wear a Life Alert-type button. While in good spirits on that day, he did growl something like “I do not know why they want me to wear this thing—when I go, I go.”

On that April day, and at the age of 96, he did what he always had done since committing his life to the priesthood—he showed up. Whether the challenge was stemming the tide of nuclear proliferation, championing civil rights, advancing co-education, or raising the academic standards of “our lady’s university,” Father Hesburgh showed up. For him, success was not preeminently vested in the outcome but in being faithful to the call and following wherever the Holy Spirit may lead.

At times, showing up meant meeting with presidents of the United States. At other times, showing up meant meeting with popes. On this occasion, showing up meant conversation with an eleven year-old girl, my daughter Addison, who asked to meet with him.

Addison and her classmates at Eastern Elementary School were studying the civil rights movement. She had then read Jill A. Boughton and Julie Walters’ appropriately entitled children’s biography of Father Hesburgh, God’s Icebreaker. When she asked to meet with him, he gladly accepted, and off we went to South Bend.

Several years earlier, macular degeneration had robbed Father Hesburgh of his eyesight. While I shared with Addison prior to our visit that he was blind, that reality did not dampen their interaction in any way. Afterward, however, Addison asked, “He’s blind?"

“Yes,” I answered.

“And he still comes to work?”

“Yes.”

“To his office on the 13th floor [of the Hesburgh Library, a.k.a. ʻTouchdown Jesusʼ]?”

“Yes.”

“Hmmm.”

On that day, Addison heard a first-hand account of what it meant to link arms with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the struggle for civil rights. On a more basic level, she learned one can never link arms in struggles that matter unless one first shows up.

On Thursday, February 26, 2015, and at the age of 97, Father Hesburgh showed up for the final installment of his calling—eternal communion with the saints and the God who calls them home.

And here's the original preface and the conversation that followed:

In order to advance his challenge to evangelicals to "develop a competent literature in every field of study," Carl F. H. Henry began working in the 1950s to establish an evangelical research university. Conversations with potential donors were initiated and plans were made to establish this institution in a community adjacent to New York City. While various challenges eventually brought the possibility of this particular institution to an end, Henry would not let the idea in general perish. At a conference hosted by Wheaton College in the mid-1980s, Henry was still issuing his call to evangelicals to establish a research university. Convinced that such an institution was a necessary agent in the struggle for what he called the "new world mind," Henry passed his idea on to the next generation of evangelicals.

That the dream survives at all is a small miracle. A number of evangelical colleges and universities were thought to be on the verge of extinction as late as the mid-1980s. But in the years leading up to Henry's death in 2003, many of these institutions experienced population explosions, and student enrollment increases initiated growing expectations. Masters and even doctoral programs were established at schools such as Azusa Pacific, George Fox, Seattle Pacific, Wheaton, and Indiana Wesleyan. As a result of this prosperity, several evangelical colleges and universities are now confronted with the possibility of leaping from being teaching institutions primarily concerned with serving undergraduates to being research universities.

Meanwhile, down in Waco, Texas, Baylor University's president, Robert Sloan, was spearheading an ambitious plan (Vision 2012) to make Baylor "one of the top [research] universities in the United States (and the world)." Central to the plan was a determination to deepen the university's commitment to the integration of faith and learning. Alas, this road was not an easy one to travel. After years of bruising controversy, Sloan resigned as president in 2005. Unable to mend this division, his successor, John M. Lilley, was fired in July 2008.

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