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Fresh Air Remembers Former Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh


Father Theodore Hesburgh, who was president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, died Thursday at the age of 97. Though Hesburgh did much to transform Notre Dame into a respected academic institution, he was known for far more. He was an author, a theologian, an activist who took on the Vatican over issues of academic freedom and more than one president over civil rights and student protests. Over the years he held more than a dozen White House appointments, among them, the chairmanship of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Terry spoke to Theodore Hesburgh in 1990.



One of the things you did early on when you took over at Notre Dame was to change the board from a clerical board to a lay board. What were some of the restrictions set down by the Vatican that you didn't think the university should have to follow?

FATHER THEODORE HESBURGH: The problem is that the university needs, above all, what I call academic freedom. It lives in a world of ideas and has to be free to challenge ideas, and it has to be - challenge a few sacred cows. And I had come into one circumstance where we were publishing a book on church and state, and I thought it was a good book. And one of the cardinals in the Vatican thought it was not a good book because it was against what he had been saying in a book he had written. So they said you shouldn't publish that book, and I said we're a university, we have academic freedom and we're going to publish it. So then of course, he called up my boss who lived in Rome and said, tell him to quiet down. And I just told my boss the same thing, that if he wanted to fire me that was his privilege. But as long as I was president, there was going to be academic freedom in this university. And the only way they were going to change me on this was to remove me. Well, they didn't remove me. The book sold out - 6,000 copies. Everybody was reasonably happy. But it struck me at that point that an organization as big as a Catholic university, which is totally faithful to the church, wants to go on and be a Catholic university, it needs a lot of elbow room. And I thought we'd have more elbow room if we were run by lay people. So, what we did, we simply set up a board of trustees - 50 of them from all parts of the country and overseas, some Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, black and white, Hispanic. We tried to get a composite board that was mainly Catholic, mainly Notre Dame alumni, but did have a flavor of what the United States was like. And we simply put it to the order that we should turn the whole place, worth over a billion dollars, over to this board to govern.

GROSS: You were president of Notre Dame during one of the most difficult periods for university presidents, and I'm thinking of the student protests of the late 1960s. You decided that you really needed to draw the line and hold the line. Of course, you had to decide where you were going to draw the line. You issued a statement to the students saying that anyone or any group that substitutes for rational persuasion, be it violent or nonviolent, will be given 15 minutes of meditation to cease and desist. And if they didn't cease and desist, then what?

HESBURGH: Then they got suspended from the university for that particular semester. Then we gave them five minutes more to think about it some more, and said if you're still impeding the rights of other people or blocking the normal life of the university and education, well, you're going to be expelled from the university for good. After I said that, one group of a dozen youngsters came to see me the night before and they said we don't like the fact that there are youngsters in the next three days who are going to be going in to look for jobs in CIA or Dow Chemical. I said, well, you've got a right to run up and down and carry your signs and do whatever you want to try to persuade them not to do that, but if they want to do it, that's their right. They're free and you're free and I've got to protect both your freedom and their freedom.

GROSS: How did you decide where to draw the line?

HESBURGH: It seemed to me, Terry, that a university is one of the few places you can disagree without being disagreeable now days. And I felt that while I really sympathized with many of the things they were protesting against - and I said in some of these things, you know, I'll go out there and carry a sign with you if you're upholding the poor in the richest society on Earth, you're upholding minorities who are not getting their full civil rights, or if you're upset about the war, so am I - I'll be with you. But there are other people here who think differently and who want to go on with a normal educational procedure, and you can't be breaking into classrooms or burning buildings or doing that kind of thing because that's against their freedom. I felt that's where the line ought to be drawn. And also to totally outlaw violence, which has no place in the university, or anywhere else for that matter.

GROSS: A lot of nuns and priests have left the clergy because of the vow of celibacy because they didn't want to uphold the vow of chastity. You say that celibacy has actually been very liberating for you.

HESBURGH: That's right, Terry. And people might say that's silly, but it isn't. First of all, I think that celibacy is a gift of God and it doesn't come easily, necessarily. You've got to work at it and you can't get yourself into all kinds of compromising situations if you're going to keep celibate. But granting that you do that, celibacy somehow makes you open to everybody because you're not committed to somebody. In other words, someone calls me in trouble in the middle of the night, I pick up and go. Well, you say a doctor does that too. Yeah, but he's got to explain why he's going and might say, let somebody else do it. But I'd say most of the work I've done around the country and around the world with other people, most of them aren't Catholic. And they often ask me - the guys would - how come all our wives are very free with you and they seem to like you better than the rest of the guys around here? And I said, I think it's very simple - I'm not a threat to them. They know I'm celibate. They know that I'm open to everybody, but they know I'm not going to play games with them. And I think in a way, they respected that in some way more than the fact that I offered Mass every day and I said my breviary every day, although those in a sense were more related to my priesthood.

GROSS: In your book, you write that you don't think you've had more than half-a-dozen sleepless nights in your life, and that at night you put your worries aside, you say your prayers and you go to sleep. I think some of us are kind of constitutionally unable (laughter) to put our worries aside at night. Do you have a - I mean, how do you think you've been able to do that?

HESBURGH: Well, first of all, I have felt that when you're in a position of responsibility, you have to make a lot of decisions and you're going to go crazy if you go back and try to remake them. So I try to live every moment for the moment and not worry about what I decided last week, or yesterday, or this morning, and not to worry about what I've got to do this afternoon and tomorrow and next week. As far as going to sleep when the day's over - it's over. Now, I do one more thing. You asked for advice, I'll give it to you but - Catholics have a thing called the rosary, which is a kind of repetition of the Our Father then ten Hail Marys and it's, in a way, almost like something in Eastern religions call a mantra. But in a way, saying the rosary, very often, like last night, I didn't get through it. I mean I wake up in the middle of the night and sometimes and there's the rosary there and I fell asleep. When I was a youngster my Irish mother used to say, just say the rosary every night and if you fall asleep, the angels will finish it for you. It's funny, but that's an Irish mother for you.

DAVIES: Father Theodore Hesburgh headed Notre Dame University for 35 years. He died yesterday at the age of 97. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Maps To The Stars," the new David Cronenberg film. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.