Friday, February 27, 2015

Remembering Fr. Ted Hesburgh for A Lifelong Assist

This morning, I finally got a chance to read Sports Illustrated's tribute to UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. I put the magazine down to reflect upon all that this great leader achieved. As I started to think about the many life lessons he imparted to his athletes, my eyes caught sight of a mug that bears the logo of my alma mater: the University of Notre Dame. Quite unexpectedly, tears began to pool in my eyes. Reading about the late Coach Smith, called to mind the life and legacy of Father Ted Hesburgh, CSC who died on February 26, 2015. He was 97 years old.

How does a "coaching legend" relate to a university president? Perhaps you know that both men served in their roles for over 35+ years. Maybe you are aware that they each contributed to the cause for Civil Rights in their own unique way. But "Hail and Farewell: Dean Smith 1931-2015" taught me something I never knew that Coach Smith valued: the assist.

The assist is one of the more selfless stats in all of sports. You have to think of your teammates and have a wider vision of who they are and where they are in order to get one. The assist makes scoring and —>winning happen; without one you have a lot of "I"s in that team. As a way of teaching its importance, Coach Smith "drummed into his players that, after scoring, each should point at the teammate who made the basket possible." 

And in February 2010, in the midst of a 100th-anniversary season, players gathered for an old-timers game. Fred Kiger, a Chapel Hill alumnus and historian said "In this place that bears your name...we'll pause and point to you, for a life long assist."

I started to think of how the world might be different if we all recognized the person who gives us an assist. And then it hit me, there is one person I want to point to for a lifelong assist—Father Hesburgh. 

At the memorial for Dean Smith. Former players honor him by doing what Coach taught them to do
Too often, assists go unnoticed (which is why Coach Smith's innovation is so thoughtful and poignant). Hesburgh's death and entry into eternal life made me pause to remember that. His made Notre Dame coed. Without his efforts and leadership, I would not have had the opportunity I did. It is something I took for granted. Why wouldn't I? I didn't know Notre Dame any other way.

By the time I arrived in South Bend—in August of 1992, co-education had been underway for 20 years. At the convocation, the Dean of Student Affairs, Patty O'Hara was thrilled to inform my class that we were 44% female, the largest in the University's history. Pangborn Hall had been converted to a female dorm and within 3 years time, Notre Dame would have near gender parity. I should have been grateful, but her words left me unfazed. While I may not have fully appreciated the fact that women could attend Notre Dame. Fr Ted did.

Many people are aware of what Hesburgh considers his greatest accomplishment as President of Notre Dame—turning the university over to lay control. Yes, under his leadership his administration improved academics, the quality of student, the endowment and the building program, but in his book "God, Country, Notre Dame" he says
"Every bit as momentous as changing the governance of Notre Dame as far as the students were concerned was the decision to go coed. Coed! Notre Dame? What was the world coming to? Well, the world of higher education was coming into modern times, a fundamental change in the culture of America. It was the mid-sixties and the sentiment on campus was overwhelmingly in favor of admitting women to Notre Dame. That was a pivotal change from when I became president of the university in 1952. A poll then would have shown, I am certain, that 95% of the students were against coeducation. Fifteen years later, 95% perhaps even 99% were decidedly for it. Obviously the time was ripe to take a historic step."
Looking at the logo of the University, not an interlocking ND, I realized Father Ted ought to be credited for the lifelong assist, even beyond coeducation. My friend Jason Spak '95 once said "going to Notre Dame isn't a four year decision, it's 40 year decision." Working with senior alumni in the local alumni chapter, I can see it's even more.

Even though Father Hesburgh is no longer with us, his spirit lives on. At every mass he said in my dorm, Farley Hall—where he too once lived—he encouraged us to pray "Come Holy Spirit." He reminded us that it's a simple prayer, but it's a powerful one too. Please pray those important words.


I was on campus but two weeks ago for a job interview. It was a long and busy day (unfortunately, I didn't get to ride in the elevator of the library that bears his name as I had so many times in the past). I concluded the day by seeing a 5-person performance of "MacBeth" in Washington Hall with a good friend, Father Paul Kollman, CSC. We grabbed a meal and he drove me to my hotel. When he dropped me off, he looked at me and said "Anne, thank you for applying to work at Notre Dame." He said it with such total sincerity that it rendered me speechless. I walked away and thought "who says that? Who thanks someone for applying to a great place to work." 
And this morning it hit me. Father Paul learned that from another Father—Ted Hesburgh. At the final mass of freshman orientation before we left our families, Father Hesburgh thanked the parents for entrusting their sons and daughters to Notre Dame. When I graduated, he said those same words again. 

That's what happens when you get the assist. Your worldview is one of gratitude. You see what others make happen. The irony is that the very man who did all of this has incredible records of his own—innumerable honorary degrees and a Presidential medal of freedom. 

If you're on campus tonight, point to Our Lady. Thank her for the assist. She must have brought Ted Hesburgh to her campus; she must have known what he would make possible: a post-Vatican II style of leadership, a community that is coed and one that prays those three simple words: Come Holy Spirit, hopefully everyday.

Photo Credits
B&W Ted

Coach Smith

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