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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Still, Carl Henry's grand ambition persists. Are there any viable models for Christian colleges or universities poised to take the next step?

Enter the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh. As president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, Father Hesburgh directed the school's transformation to its present eminence as an ecumenically Catholic research university. (In recent decades, Notre Dame has attracted outstanding evangelical scholars (evangelicals or close kin) such as Alvin Plantinga, George Marsden, and Mark Noll.) Todd Ream and Brian Clark talked with Hesburgh in his office on the Notre Dame campus.

What exactly does it mean to you to be a priest?

It's a funny thing in a way, probably atypical, but from the time I began to think about being anything I wanted to be a priest. Don't ask me why. It's the grace of God and I can't explain it all, but I kept that through grammar school and high school. When I was going into high school, one of the Holy Cross priests from Notre Dame was giving a mission at our parish in Syracuse, and he told my mother that I ought to come out to Notre Dame and do my high school in the seminary. And she said, "He's not going to pick up at age 12 and go that far away. He's going to high school here." And the priest said, "Well, he might lose his vocation." And she said, "Let me tell you something Father. If he loses his vocation growing up in a Christian family, where he goes to mass and communion every day and is an altar boy, in the Church, I'll tell you something—he doesn't have one." So when I finished high school, I came here.

Would you describe your appointment to the presidency of Notre Dame?

I became executive vice president in 1949. I was the first one to hold that office. The president at that time, Father John Cavanaugh, decided to reorganize the after the war. Since I was the first executive vice president, I asked, "So what does that mean?" He said, "That means you're the vice president in charge of the other vice presidents, and you have to write the articles of administration for all these new tasks," which I did, and I think they are still using that organizational chart today with the description of the various tasks and how they interlock with each other. It was a very tough three years from '49 to '52. Father Cavanaugh really worked me across the board on a wide variety of tasks, and I learned a lot from him because he was a great administrator. (He had been vice president of Studebaker before he decided he wanted to become priest.) In 1952—I had just turned 35 a week earlier—I became president, and I picked a fellow named Father Edmund Joyce, who was quite different from me, to be my executive vice president. He had studied business at Notre Dame, and he had been out working in the world for five years; he was a marvelous guy with great intelligence and a great sense of administration. One of the smartest things I did was to pick him as my number-one assistant. When the six-year term was up in 1958, I expected to go back to teaching theology, but they told me to keep on going—along with Father Joyce. And I said, "What about the six years?" They said, "Well, that was a limitation because you are also superior of all the religious on campus, the congregation of the Holy Cross"—maybe 80 or 90 of them. "Under canon law you can't be a religious superior more than six years. So you are no longer religious superior but you are president." And on that basis we went around that track about six times. We started, both of us, at age 35 and at age 70 we retired. And that's the story. I've been retired since that time, but I still keep busy.

How would you assess Notre Dame as you inherited it at the beginning of your presidency?

My mentor, Father John Cavanaugh, brought the university into the modern age by creating a whole new administrative structure. That was a big aid because it spread the leadership broadly. There was no reason why it had to be a priest to do these jobs. Many people were doing them who weren't clerics across the land. But I didn't find being a priest hurt me; it really helped me in many ways because I was interested in education more broadly—not just secular knowledge but also formation of Christian character, which has been an integral part of Notre Dame since it began. It still continues that way today.

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