An Archivist’s Eulogy for Father Hesburgh
I mourn the passing of Father Ted in a deeply personal as well as professional way.
In 1978, when I was an ambitious but still young archivist, he believed in me enough to give me the chance to be University Archivist, passing over others who on paper looked to be far more qualified at that point in time than I was. I had little doubt, of course, that I was equipped to do the job, but I think Father Ted’s choice startled more than a few. He could, and did, take those kinds of chances when it came to people. Because it wasn’t just who you were on paper that mattered to him, it was who he believed you to be, and perhaps more importantly what you were capable of becoming that was most important. Father Ted inspired so many of us to become all that he saw in us, even when others may have been more short sighted.
I had the privilege of participating in one of the early “Fly-In” weekends here at Notre Dame, probably in the mid to late ‘70s, when very wealthy potential donors were brought to campus for a very special set of events. The intent, of course, was to engage them to the point they would make a substantial financial commitment to the University. Everything about the weekend was top drawer, but what impressed me the most was what happened at the Saturday night dinner. After a rather lavish meal, served on the 14th floor of the Memorial Library, everyone pushed back from their tables and relocated themselves in comfortable seating with brandies in hand. Father Ted lit a cigar and proceeded to share his vision for what Notre Dame had the potential to become. As his smoke slowly circled above him, I watched his audience become totally mesmerized. His effect on everyone in the room was palpable. I’d never seen anything like it and will never forget it.
I’m not sure Father Ted’s charisma was as evident in large public settings as it was privately, although surely he was a master of the public event. But in private, I think it was probably near impossible to refuse anything he asked of you. The paradox here is he mostly didn’t ask. He didn’t have to. You knew.
Father Ted knew how to bind people to a shared vision, of intellectual community, of religious commitment, of personal, moral integrity. He was the consummate leader. He never micro-managed: if he had enough confidence in you to give you a job, he respected your professional competence and gave you the freedom to get the job done. Importantly, he also provided you with the resources you’d need to succeed.
Father Ted gave as generously as he took. The support he gave me, personally, and the Archives that he entrusted to my care, spanned all the years I served him and this university. He used his many personal contacts to solicit collections to enrich our holdings. The door to his office was always open to me, for advice and counsel, for assistance. He gave me enormous freedom to make judgment calls on access to information, relying on the fact I also knew when to defer a decision and kick an issue upstairs. I never left his office without also receiving his prayers and blessings. In 1986, as his presidency was winding down, he surprised me and my husband with a Special Presidential Award. He called it a “two-fer,” to recognize two historians who had committed their professional lives to Notre Dame. But I knew, for my part, it was also his way of telling me our job together was not done when he left office. Remember what I said about binding.
The University Archives was really transformed by Father Ted’s sense of history and the path upon which he propelled us. Anyone who knew him knew he had a strong sense of his own place in history, but that place was as one player amongst many, one point in time along a continuum. His support of the Archives did not begin with me, and our dynamic was certainly different than what he experienced with my immediate two predecessors, two Holy Cross priests, who were the only other University Archivists during Father Ted’s tenure as president. In 1952, when Father Ted took office as president, Father Tom McAvoy had been University Archivist since 1929. A formidable figure within the Community, he embodied all things having to do with history on campus, and by all accounts on occasion was a thorn in Father Ted’s side. When Father Tom Blantz succeeded him, upon Father McAvoy’s death in 1969, Father Ted now had an Archivist whose gentle and unassuming style could not have been in greater contrast to the man he replaced. What unified these three men, however, was a common past and present, of Community and of the University. The history in the Archives was theirs.
When I came along, I was different. I was young, I was a lay person, I was a married woman. Many thought any one of those factors could have disqualified me from consideration for the particular administrative position at Notre Dame that I wanted, and wanted badly. But they didn’t, not singly or collectively. I was offered the opportunity to take responsibility for an operation with a reputation for excellence, and to take it to the next level. I have always believed my appointment by Father Ted was evidence of not only how much he valued the past, but how willing he was to break from it if he thought it was the right thing to do. It was made absolutely clear to me that I was Father Ted’s choice as University Archivist, it was his decision and his alone, and that I would “serve at the pleasure of the President.”
For me, it has, indeed, been a pleasure. I trust I have served him well and never gave him cause to regret his decision. He will be sorely missed.
Wendy Clauson Schlereth
February 26, 2015
A selection of favorite photos of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh
chosen by the Notre Dame Archives’ staff: