Who gets the president of the United States, vice president of the United States, leaders of Congress, senators, ambassadors, cardinals and CEOs alike to pause in the middle of their busy day to wish you a happy birthday? Not your ordinary college president, that’s for sure.
But Father Ted Hesburgh is no ordinary college president.
The legendary retired president of the University of Notre Dame celebrated his 96th birthday this week, and his friends in high places arranged a visit to Washington with “surprise” stops at the White House to receive birthday greetings from President Obama and then on the Rayburn Room in the U.S. Capitol packed with Notre Dame alums and Fr. Hesburgh’s many admirers.
Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise appearance to offer his greetings. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick offered the invocation and fond memories of days with Father Ted. Senators and Representatives offered tributes. Current Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins offered prayers. The crowd surged forward at the end to shake hands with Father Ted and offer personal birthday greetings, and he was lovely, patient and inspiring to the very end of the reception.
And, wouldn’t you know it, a Trinity Woman emceed the whole lovely event — Nancy Pelosi ’62, Democratic Leader, and her marvelous staff organized the reception in the Rayburn Room and made sure every detail was just perfect — down to the elaborate chocolate confections and birthday cake. I’m so grateful to Leader Pelosi for including me and Trinity in this grand occasion!
For me, meeting Father Hesburgh was a great thrill. He started serving as Notre Dame’s president the year I was born — 1952 — and continued for 35 years through 1987. So, I grew up thinking that there was only one once and future president of that great Catholic institution — Father Hesburgh was THE college president of his era, the leader of not only the Catholic colleges and universities but all institutions in higher education. I admired him from afar for his work in civil rights and social justice, and I was thrilled in 1977 when he gave the commencement address for my graduation from Georgetown Law School. In many ways, he inspired my own work in higher education.
When I met Father Hesburgh yesterday, I brought him greetings from Sr. Margaret Claydon, SND who was Trinity’s president from 1959 to 1975, and a colleague with Father Hesburgh in many meetings about changes that were occurring in Catholic higher education in those days. Hesburgh led the “Land O’ Lakes” movement that led to the articulation of clear autonomy for Catholic institutions, and as part of that series of meetings he led a group of Catholic college presidents to Rome to meet with Vatican officials. Sr. Margaret was the only woman who participated in those meetings, and she remembers his many kindnesses to her. She was so pleased when I brought his return greetings back to Trinity yesterday.
Father Hesburgh is legendary today not only for building a great foundation for the modern Notre Dame, but perhaps more significantly, for his extraordinary public leadership for civil rights and social justice. President Eisenhower appointed him as a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1957, years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On July 21, 1964, after other Catholic leaders turned down the invitation, he accepted the call to participate in a rally for civil rights on Soldier Field in Chicago, where, after publicly endorsing the Civil Rights Act he locked arms with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to sing, “We Shall Overcome.” The photograph below now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
College presidents today are rightly criticized for being too timid, for not lending our considerable intellectual leadership to the great issues of this historic era. Meeting Father Hesburgh yesterday reminded me that the privilege of these important positions comes with the expectation that we must be leaders for the public good, for advancement of large moral values that are the fabric of our society, that we must not ever be afraid to speak out for social justice, equality and freedom.
Today, we can all be Notre Dame alums in spirit as we sing out to Father Hesburgh, “Happy Birthday!” And we can be glad that his long life continues to be a source of inspiration for new generations of leaders in our nation.
By the way, cheers for the women’s college alumnae in Congress, and especially for the three alumnae of St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame, Indiana — in the photo above, left to right, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Rep. Donna Marie Christensen of the Virgin Islands, and Rep. Madeleine Bordallo of Guam. What a treat to meet these great women leaders and to see them and our very own Leader Pelosi making sure that women’s leadership is strong in the United States Congress!