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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 1:00 am

Journal Entry

A life story worthy of being documented

TIM HARMON | The Journal Gazette

See the Film

There are showings of “Hesburgh” at the Cinema Center at 3:45 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. today and 3:45 p.m. on Thursday.

“Hesburgh,” the documentary on the life of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, faces a central challenge: There is simply so much to tell. 

Most Hoosiers know something of Hesburgh's success as president of the University of Notre Dame. When he took the helm in the early 1950s, Notre Dame was known primarily as a football powerhouse.  When he retired in the 1980s, the school had a national academic reputation.

As this film makes clear, though, Hesburgh's influence extended far beyond the campus in South Bend. As a moral leader, he took strong stands on civil rights and issues of war and peace. He championed science and space travel and helped reform college athletics. He seemed as much at ease with the corporate leaders and U.S. presidents he counseled as he was with the Notre Dame students he taught and advised.  

Hesburgh died at 97 in 2015. As they chronicled his life, creators of the documentary were struck by how much the world misses his approach to moral and social challenges.  

“I think this happens to be a great moment in American history to ponder what great leadership could look like, or should look like,” director Patrick Creadon told a Chicago interviewer last month.

An example of Hesburgh's uncanny ability to help people of different views find common ground occurred early in his tenure at Notre Dame, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him in 1957 to join the newly formed U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In those early days of the modern civil rights movement, most of white America had little understanding of the discrimination faced by black citizens – let alone what to do about it.

Some observers doubted the commission would be able to reach consensus on anything. The seven-member commission included three Southerners, among them a former Virginia governor who had been a segregationist leader. 

After two years of work, the commission was ensconced at an air force base in Louisiana as it prepared its report for the president. Conditions were ripe for disagreement: The weather was unpleasantly hot, and airplane noise disrupted their deliberations.

Prevailing on a Notre Dame trustee to send his DC-3 to pick them up, Hesburgh flew the group to Notre Dame's vacation lodge at Land O' Lakes, Wisconsin. After a pleasant day of fishing, some cocktails and a sumptuous meal, the commissioners got down to work – and agreed on 12 recommendations that laid the groundwork for the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The vote on 11 of the 12 points was unanimous.

Meeting with them later, Eisenhower asked how Hesburgh, three Republicans and three Democrats had been able to reach consensus.

“Mr. President,” Hesburgh said, “you didn't appoint three Democrats and three Republicans; you appointed six fishermen.”

True, but the president also appointed Hesburgh, a master at getting others to rise above politics, pettiness and even prejudice.

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.