NOTRE DAME, Ind. (CNS) — Holy Cross Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, who died Feb. 26 at age 97, was known simply as “Father Ted” by Notre Dame students and was well known by U.S. presidents, church leaders and members of Congress.
The following quotes from several U.S. leaders about the late priest were among many collected by Notre Dame about the late priest, who was president of Notre Dame for 35 years, from 1952 to 1987, a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and more than 100 honorary degrees.
— Former President George H.W. Bush: “His reputation as one who stood for and worked for world peace goes far beyond any political boundary, far beyond the boundary of the United States of America. He was a true man of peace.”
— Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: “The key to the success of the civil rights movement was to keep it from being a radical leftist movement, and recognize that it was truly a movement coming out of the Judeo-Christian, U.S. Constitutional tradition of justice. Well, nobody could represent all of those forces like Father Ted could. And he did it in such a quiet, unassuming, non-judgmental way that when he was with you, you didn’t have to worry about who was against you.”
— Former President Jimmy Carter: “His dynamic leadership in expanding the scope of the university’s Center for Civil (& Human) Rights to worldwide concern for the basic rights of all people has given him an international reputation that brings credit to our country, to his faith, and to the great educational institution that he leads.”
— Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming: “No one ever gave my friend Father Ted any of the soft issues to deal with in America. Various American presidents and congressional leaders always turned him loose in areas filled with emotion, fear, guilt and racism. And he would always bring reason to the fore.”
— Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, current president of Notre Dame: “One of the great lessons for me in leadership was to talk to Father Ted, and at the end of our conversation — he spoke about his life and his work — he stood up, knelt down and asked for my blessing. Here I was a very young superior of that community, and here was this great man, this great figure, kneeling and asking for my blessing. It taught me a great deal about leadership, about being a priest, and about service. It epitomizes so much of what Father Ted has taught me and so many others.”
— Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington: “He was always extraordinarily kind to everybody. I was a young priest at the time (of our first meeting) and he was as thoughtful and as gracious to me as he was to the major figures who were there and sometimes demanding attention. I will never forget that personal touch and that personal kindness. It was a mark of his life and it went hand in hand with an extraordinary ability to lead and to guide the organizations he played so often so key and vital a role.”
— Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz: “If Reader’s Digest asked me to write about the most amazing person I’ve ever met in my life, my answer would be, without a doubt, Father Hesburgh. I was blessed and fortunate to be under his tutelage while I coached at the University of Notre Dame. His knowledge, wisdom and care of other people were not only sincere, but very obvious. You can sometimes feel when you’re among greatness, and you always had this feeling when you were with Father Hesburgh. Yet, at the same time, he was so humble and always made you the center of conversation.”
— Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana: “Throughout his career, Father Hesburgh inspired his community to pursue not only academic excellence and international prominence, but also justice and spiritual meaning. Father Ted is the epitome of a compassionate man, but combined with that sense of compassion is remarkable self-discipline, an articulate man who has used words well, an effective man whose leadership, whose political skills and whose vision made that compassion effective.”
In a statement released Feb. 27 in Washington, President Barack Obama said that “during his lifetime of service to his country, his church, and his beloved University of Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh inspired generations of young men and women to lead with the courage of their convictions.”
“His deep and abiding faith in a loving God, and in the power of our shared humanity, led him to join the first-ever United States Civil Rights Commission, and join hands with (the Rev. Martin Luther) King to sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ His belief that what unites us is greater than what divides us made him a champion of academic freedom and open debate,” the president said.
Obama noted that when he delivered the commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009, he was “honored to thank Father Hesburgh for his contributions to our country and our world.”
The University of Notre Dame came under harsh criticism from many quarters of the Catholic Church when it invited Obama to deliver that and receive an honorary law degree. About 80 U.S. bishops and others said Obama’s support of legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research made him an inappropriate choice.
But Father Hesburgh backed Notre Dame’s decision, saying that the nation’s universities are meant to be places where people with different opinions can talk to one another.