On a fall night in 1981, I was a 33-year-old priest sitting in my room at Dillon Hall at about 11 p.m. The phone rang. When I answered, I was greeted with the salutation, “Hello, Dave. This is Ted Hesburgh.”
I paused, thinking this was a joke. I then responded, “Who?” He again said, “Ted Hesburgh. I wanted to see if you were free to come over to the office for a chat.” “Do you mean now?” I replied. “Sure, I’m always up late,” he said. “Ok. I’ll be right over.” (I saw my life pass before my eyes.) I put on black pants and a collared shirt, double checked to be sure the collar was in, and headed, no, raced out the door.
I stood in front of the main building, looking up at the lights of Ted’s office that suddenly seemed ominous. I then remembered that the doors to the building would be locked. Like the Wizard of Oz, the big front door opened, and there was the one and only Ted Hesburgh. Up the stairs I went. Then, up to the fourth floor we went. I saw Ted at Corby table and at CSC events, but it wasn’t like we hung out. So, my head was spinning as to what he could possibly want of a relatively new assistant professor of management.
That phone call on the fall night of 1981 and the subsequent conversation irreversibly changed the trajectory of my life in ways that I could never have imagined. I left his office at 2 a.m. I had just agreed that I would serve as the executive assistant, not just to any president, but THIS president. My head and heart were screaming, “What just happened?!” I went straight to the Grotto.
Fast forward almost 34 years to March 3 and 4, 2015. A very different priest, soon to celebrate his 67th birthday, was lost in his thoughts in Sacred Heart Basilica, reflecting with profound gratitude on the gift this brother Holy Cross priest gave to him. The gift he gave was the gift of himself: his time (anytime), his space, his wisdom, his experience, his spirituality, his prayers, his patience, his chastisement, his guidance, his compassionate heart, his tough will, and most of all, his zeal for being a priest and how administration could well be a ministry if you are a priest first.
Everything everyone said about the character, faith and accomplishments of Father Ted during those days of the wake and funeral was true. But it struck me that I had the unique opportunity to experience all of these things up close and personal. I was able to not only hear his wisdom, compassion and zeal, I was able to feel it, touch it and even smell it, thanks to those God-forsaken Cuban cigars and Brazilian cigarillos. I was able to not just know he was a devoted priest, but to experience his Mass and to pray with him.
In all of it, over all these years, Ted never quit being to me what in the end was that which he taught me, and that was to be a mentor. There is nothing he couldn’t say to me and vice versa. He could put me at ease in awkward moments, especially when I was his religious superior. During our first time spent together after I was elected provincial superior, he told me that he was always an obedient religious. He laughed when I implored him to keep it up.
A few months after his collaborator and dear friend, Father Ned Joyce, died, I took Ted to lunch. I was a nervous wreck because of the topic, so I didn’t tarry after we sat down. I told him that I wanted to speak to him about something specifically and that it might be awkward. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s my death and funeral, isn’t it?” I smiled at him and replied, “I’m glad you said it first.” He went on: “I want a typical Holy Cross funeral; and don’t need some bigwig cardinal to preach; and it must be in the Basilica, no matter what. I lay prostrate on that floor when I was ordained. I want to be buried from there. I know you’ll get it done, Dave, ole snort.” (I’ve never known why he frequently called me “ole snort.”) I simply responded to his candor, “Of course.”
Ted was of only one persona. He was the same with everyone, pope or freshman. He was of good cheer most of the time, and loathed uncharitableness. He had foibles and knew them well, so they were easy to absorb when you worked with him.
For two-and-a-half years, he was the person I had contact with in the course of a day, more than any other.
I served as one of his vice presidents from 1984 until his retirement as president in 1987. I enjoyed his support and encouragement during my time as president of the University of Portland, and as provincial superior. My gratitude is immense.
The name “Ted” has been significant to me three times in my life: Ted (my president), Ted (my dad) and Ted (my middle name). I am glad for all three, and so very grateful for that blessing.
Editor’s Note: This reflection originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of Pillars and is reprinted with permission of the author.
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