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Notre Dame president credited for transforming school dies

February 28, 2015
FILE - The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, talks about his experiences over 90 years of life at his desk in the Hesburgh Library on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in this Sept. 24, 2007 file photo. The priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame into an academic power during his 35 years in charge while also serving as an adviser to popes and presidents died Thursday night Feb. 26, 2015 at age 97 according to University spokesman Paul Browne. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)
FILE - The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, talks about his experiences over 90 years of life at his desk in the Hesburgh Library on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in this Sept. 24, 2007 file photo. The priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame into an academic power during his 35 years in charge while also serving as an adviser to popes and presidents died Thursday night Feb. 26, 2015 at age 97 according to University spokesman Paul Browne. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)

SOUTH BEND, Indiana (AP) — The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh transformed the University of Notre Dame into a school known almost as much for academics as for American football, even if it meant challenging popes, presidents or legendary football coaches.

And he did it while championing human rights around the globe, from civil rights close to home — he joined hands with Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1964 rally and opened campus doors to women — to supporting Third World development. The work often took him far from campus, where the joke became that while God was everywhere, Hesburgh was everywhere but Notre Dame.

But Hesburgh, who died late Thursday at age 97, spent enough time on campus while at the helm from 1952 to 1987 to build Notre Dame into an academic power.

He was featured on the cover of Time magazine a decade into his tenure for an article describing him as the most influential figure in the reshaping of Catholic education, and he was awarded 150 honorary degrees. During his tenure, student enrollment spiked and the school’s endowment grew from $9 million to $350 million.

The charming and personable priest found as much ease meeting with heads of state as he did with students. His aim was constant: Better people’s lives.

“I go back to an old Latin motto, opus justitiae pax: Peace is the work of justice,” Hesburgh said in a 2001 interview. “We’ve known 20 percent of the people in the world have 80 percent of the goodies, which means the other 80 percent have to scrape by on 20 percent.”

Hesburgh died late Thursday night on the school’s campus in South Bend. Hesburgh had lost his sight and had been slowing down, yet he still celebrated Mass daily and showed up at his campus office every day until last week, said the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s current president.

In a letter Friday to the student newspaper, President Jimmy Carter recalled his 40-year friendship with Hesburgh, saying he devoted his life to serving humanity and taking courageous stands.

“Father Hesburgh has made the world a better place — for those of us whose lives he has touched directly and as an inspiration for generations to come,” Carter wrote.

Hesburgh’s goal coming out of seminary was to be a Navy chaplain during World War II, but he was sent to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to pursue a doctorate. He then returned to Notre Dame, where he became head of the theology department, then executive vice president. He was named president at age 35 in 1952.

His passion for civil rights earned him a spot as a founding member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1957. President Richard Nixon fired him from the commission in 1972, after Hesburgh famously challenged Nixon’s record.

It wasn’t his only challenge to authority. When the Vatican demanded conformity to church dogma, Hesburgh insisted that Notre Dame remain an intellectual center for theological debate. And in 1949, he took on powerful football coach Frank Leahy while reorganizing the athletic department.

Hesburgh wrote several books, including the best-selling “God, Country, Notre Dame,” sharing his vision of the contemporary Catholic school.

“The Catholic university should be a place,” he wrote, “where all the great questions are asked, where an exciting conversation is continually in progress, where the mind constantly grows as the values and powers of intelligence and wisdom are cherished and exercised in full freedom.”

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