An Irishman's Diary

Mon, Apr 2, 2012, 01:00

HE SAT with the stolid assurance of a man well-used to exercising unhindered authority. We were in his offices at Notre Dame University, Indiana.

A photograph on a wall showed him in a group, arms linked with Martin Luther King. On a shelf there’s a baseball autographed by Joe DiMaggio. And, everywhere, there are awards.

He holds the Guinness Book of world records title for “Most Honorary Degrees”. To date he has received 150. He was also awarded an Irish passport by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, personally, at Notre Dame last St Patrick’s Day.

Fr Theodore Hesburgh is 95 next month. His grandfather Martin Murphy emigrated from Wexford in 1857. On St Patrick’s Day the Taoiseach described Fr Hesburgh, who oversaw massive expansion at Notre Dame when he was president there from 1952 to 1987, as a “truly great Irish-American figure”. Few would disagree.

That time we met at Notre Dame in 2003 all Fr Hesburgh wanted to talk about was things Irish. In particular, the remarkable fact that so many presidents of Ivy League universities in the US were Jewish. The US Jewish population is about the same as that of Ireland, he noted. He would like to see the Irish assume a leadership role in US intellectual life similar to that already achieved in politics and business.

Fr Hesburgh is a living legend in US higher education. As though to underline this, he lives at Notre Dame in a 14-storey building named after himself and which also houses the Hesburgh Library.

From Syracuse in upstate New York, his father Theodore was from Luxembourg. But it is his mother Anne Murphy he talks about. She wouldn’t let him go to Notre Dame when Holy Cross priests came recruiting at his high school. “He might lose his vocation,” they said. “If he has a real vocation he won’t lose it in two years,” she said.

He didn’t, and later went to Notre Dame, then to the Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained at Notre Dame in June 1943. Nine years later he was its president.

“Lift that there,” he instructed, pointing to the outer tassled rim of a blue and yellow circular carpet which covered the greater part of his office floor. Turned over it revealed “Made in Donegal”. He is proud of the carpet.

Standing in its middle he explained that blue and yellow “are Our Lady’s colours” and the names in its outer circles are those of former presidents of Notre Dame. “All are Irish except the first two,” he said of the 15 listed. Notre Dame was founded in 1842 near South Bend in Indiana, about 90 miles southeast of Chicago.

Under his leadership, Notre Dame became the leading Catholic university in the US. Its student numbers nearly doubled to 9,600 and faculty more than doubled to 950. Its library volumes increased five-fold; its endowment rose from $7 million to more than $400 million; its physical facilities grew from 48 to 88 buildings; its research funding increased more than 20-fold.

It helped too that its “Fighting Irish” football team is among the best known in the US.

But Fr Hesburgh’s achievements on the national and international stages have been even more remarkable. He was nominated by President Eisenhower to the US Commission on Civil Rights, created in 1957. In 1964, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Johnson, the highest civilian honour in the US.

He chaired the Commission on Civil Rights from 1969. In 1970 he received the prestigious Meiklejohn Award of the American Association of University Professors, bestowed on those who uphold academic freedom. It recognised Fr Hesburgh’s crucial role in frustrating attempts in 1969 by the Nixon administration to use federal troops to deal with campus disturbances during Vietnam protests.

In 1972 he was sacked by President Nixon from the Commission because of his criticisms of that administration’s civil rights record – a sacking which itself has been considered among the priest’s finer achievements.

He was appointed to 15 positions by US presidents and also served four popes, three of the latter in his role as permanent Vatican representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, from 1956 to 1970.

In 1982 he helped organise a meeting in the Vatican of 58 world-class scientists, who called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, in Vienna, he brought together leaders of six faiths to endorse the views of those scientists.

An insight into his powers of persuasion concerns early dealings with Notre Dame’s great benefactor, former Coca Cola chairman and fellow Irish-American Donald Keough. Fr Hesburgh spent years convincing Mr Keough to sit on the university board. Then he set about persuading him to head a committee to raise funds.

He was refused. He persuaded Donald Keough to meet him. The meeting lasted three minutes. Since when, the Keough Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame, endowed by Donald and Marilyn Keough in 1992, is regarded as a leader in its field in the US.