Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Father Theodore Hesburgh (1917-2015)


"Father Ted," president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, in his office at the school's Hesburgh Library in 2012 (see the full photo here)
I met a blind priest at the airport. Father Ted taught me to take a leap of faith.
Father Theodore Hesburgh, who died Thursday at 97, was no longer Notre Dame’s president by the time I enrolled in 1994, yet he remained a campus legend, instantly recognizable in his crisp black shirt and clerical collar and with his shock of white hair. I knew he’d done important things — advised six presidents, chaired the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Nixon until his policy disagreements got him demoted, and transformed Notre Dame into an academic powerhouse, independent from Rome.  Read full article »
by Ken

"Father Ted" Hesburgh -- more properly the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh CSC, though he signed himself "Father Ted Hesburgh") -- served as president of Notre Dame so long (1952-87), and was so visible in that position, that it would have been hard for anyone who lived through any significant part of that period not to have been aware of him. I don't know a whole lot more than that about him; I just remember him as being a highly decent and compassionate individual, and about as good a public face as American Catholics had in my memory -- note the end of the paragraph quoted above, crediting him with "transform[ing] Notre Dame into an academic powerhouse, independent from Rome."

Beyond that, I wouldn't be "remembering" Father Ted now if I hadn't encountered the above blurb and link in this morning's Washington Post "Headlines" e-mail.

I can't speak for you, but I couldn't resist. The blurb turns out to be the first paragraph of a "PostEverything" piece by Jenny Shank, identified as "a faculty mentor at Regis University in Denver and the author of The Ringer." In the piece Jenny tells us about her 2001 encounter with Father Ted, which began at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and the impact it had on her life, an impact that seems fairly represented in the title of her piece. This part is interesting, and I can imagine you'll want to read about it. However, I'm not as interested in the life lesson as in the encounter itself.

On one level, it's just a conversation two strangers had during a three-hour plane flight, but I think it's pretty darned charming just on this level. For me at least, the interest compounds considerably when you consider the formidable history Jenny's travel companion carried with him, and who he was at the time of this encounter.

After that opening paragraph, sketching Father Ted's Notre Dame history and her own, Jenny writes, "Father Ted remained an abstraction to me until I recognized him at O’Hare airport in 2001."
I was 24, waiting for a plane home to Denver. He would have been unmistakable even without his blue and gold Notre Dame bag, bedecked with shamrocks. I introduced myself, and he asked whether the flight attendant could switch my seat to be next to his. He told me he suffered from macular degeneration, was blind in one eye and could barely see out of the other. Despite near-blindness, he was traveling across the country without an assistant.

I helped him present his ticket and find our row. I stowed his leather Mass kit, and sat quietly as he said a blessing as our plane taxied down the runway. “How’s that?” he asked me.

“Good,” I said.

“No one on an airplane has ever refused it,” he said.

When our food was served, Father Ted asked me to identify his fork, napkin, mustard and macaroni salad. He placed the fork in his right vest pocket and the napkin in his left so he could keep track of them.

My three-hour conversation with Father Ted took on a “My Dinner with Andre” quality. He described the time he was a guest on a nuclear submarine and a ride he’d taken on the fastest airplane ever built. He spoke 20 languages “with varying levels of fluency.” He gently interrogated me about my love life and advised me to marry a Notre Dame alumnus. “Fifty percent of marriages don’t work out,” he said, “but 93% of Notre Dame marriages last.” (He didn’t mention the source of these statistics.)

He had known all the presidents since FDR, and gave me his opinion of Kennedy and Carter. Father Ted met Condoleezza Rice for the first time when she was 19, an accomplished ice skater and pianist. He advised her to learn Russian so she’d be a step ahead of the competition in the field of foreign affairs. “I always wondered why she never got married,” he added, “with her cute dimples and all.”

He’d met Mother Theresa in the Seychelles once: “It’s stupid that the Church doesn’t go ahead and make her a saint, but you have to wait five years before anything begins to get done.” I asked whether people needed to attribute miracles to her before the canonization process could begin and he waved this off, as if impatient with the thought, and said, “Her whole life’s a miracle.”

He asked me what I did, and when I told him I was a writer, he said, “That’s a hard business.”

When we arrived at the Denver airport, Father Ted had to find the gate for his flight to Vail, where he was going to visit his brother. I was eager to assist him make his way through the terminal, but then a young man came up and said, “Father Hesburgh!” He was a Notre Dame alum, too. Father Ted explained that this happens to him all over the world. I left them so the young man could have his own encounter with the illustrious priest.

It struck me then what an act of absolute faith it was for Father Ted to travel across the country alone with faltering sight. He trusted that if he carried that Notre Dame bag, someone would approach and provide any help he needed.
I don't suppose there's anything earth-shaking here, just a charmingly human encounter. It made me feel better about . . . well, maybe just better. I think perhaps I'm less impressed by Father Ted's "act of absolute faith" in traveling alone than by his act of humility in not availing himself of special privileges that almost certainly would have been readily available to him. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that for this trip to visit his brother in Vail he could easily have had every manner of VIP assistance the whole way.

That just doesn't seem to have been who he was. Thanks for sharing this, Jenny, and good luck with the new book!

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