As the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh was taking the reins at the University of Notre Dame in 1952, I was being born less than a mile away at St. Joseph’s Hospital, just off Notre Dame Avenue in South Bend, Indiana. And while my mother was starting me off in the world, her sister, my Aunt Helen, was beginning what would be a 35-year career as Hesburgh’s personal secretary, for his entire tenure as university president.
So for me, watching “Hesburgh,” the new documentary from ND alum and award-winning filmmaker Patrick Creadon, was like zooming out on the familiar. It was an emotional journey back through not only my own life, but also a tumultuous period for our nation — one that isn’t over yet.
“Father Ted,” as he became known, was “almost like a Forrest Gump-type character in American history,” Creadon says. “He just popped up everywhere in the second half of the 20th century.”
The film, running 1 hour and 44 minutes, tells the story of a remarkable life that intersected with the country’s key moments, right up until Hesburgh’s death in 2015 at age 97. “He became one of the great leaders of our time, and I find his story fascinating,” Creadon says.
Hesburgh was just starting the process of turning Notre Dame from a small football school into an academic powerhouse when President Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped him in 1957 for a seat on the newly established U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the first serious effort to address racial divisions dating back three centuries in America.
At the same time, he became a central figure in global negotiations on the threat of nuclear weapons; was both a friend to popes and a thorn in the side of the Vatican over church teachings and academic freedom; and challenged presidents of both parties on issues of war, social unrest and, of course, ethics and morality.
But it was the civil rights struggle where Hesburgh played an outsize role. He almost single-handedly guided a deeply divided, six-member commission to develop a dozen recommendations for congressional action on civil rights, famously taking the group to a Notre Dame resort in Wisconsin for fishing, good food and an occasional bourbon that finally broke the ice.
Then there was the matter of pushing the recommendations through Congress, a five-year effort that culminated in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And finally, when President Richard Nixon named Hesburgh chairman of the commission in 1969, the focus shifted to enforcement of the landmark law.
It didn’t end well for Father Ted. After the panel issued a scathing report — saying that out of 40 federal agencies, only one had a “fair” performance on civil rights and all the rest were “poor” — Nixon wasn’t pleased. One of the first things he did upon his re-election in 1972 was demand Hesburgh’s resignation.
Creadon artfully and at times reverently mixes videos, stills and interviews with people who knew Hesburgh — such as former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel and Civil Rights Commission leader Mary Frances Berry — drawing from archives at Notre Dame, news organizations, presidential libraries and government agencies.
There are moments that jolted me back to my youth: images of my aunt with her boss or seated at a desk piled high with his mail, scenes of the campus that was practically my backyard in the 1960s, and a photo of Hesburgh’s 1943 ordination that included my uncle, who became a Holy Cross priest in the same ceremony.
Overall, the film “is about a certain style of leadership that I think we’ve lost,” Creadon says. “America has become a place where screaming at each other is the norm; trying to embarrass each other or lie about something is what we’ve become used to. We have got to figure out a way to get away from this moment we are in, and I think studying great leadership is a way to do that.”
One scene made me fast-forward to 2019. The narrator reading from Hesburgh’s past writings (Maurice LaMarche) bemoans the fact that President John F. Kennedy resisted pushing the Civil Rights Commission’s recommendations through Congress in the early 1960s because he feared losing votes in the South that he needed to win a second term.
Today, President Donald Trump refuses to decisively condemn white nationalists, apparently concerned about eroding his base as he runs for re-election in 2020.
Former Rep. Tim Roemer, a Democrat who represented South Bend from 1991 to 2003, says he often consulted with Hesburgh during his retirement years and sees his approach as a way out of our current turmoil.
“In a time of great divisiveness in our country, when the Catholic Church is in a chaotic state, when our politics are dysfunctional, we need to be able to look to heroes and see a film like this to remind us that when you build friendship, when you build bridges, when you are civil to other people, you are successful in leadership,” Roemer says. “I think Fr. Hesburgh would say, ‘We’ve done this before and we can do it again.’ He would be positive.”