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Rev. Theodore Hesburgh: Legendary Notre Dame President

When asked at his 1952 inauguration as president of Notre Dame to pose with a pigskin, as if he were a successor to Knute Rockne, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh said, “I’m not the football coach. I’m the president.”

Rev. Theodore Hesburgh

Indeed, during his 35-year career at the school, Hesburgh, who passed away Feb. 26 at age 97 on the campus in South Bend, Ind., became far more influential than any gridiron hero. He turned Notre Dame into an academic powerhouse, became a confidant of U.S. presidents and wielded influence on the international stage.

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Here are some facts about Hesburgh’s remarkable career.

  • Of his achievements, he said he was was proudest of admitting women to Notre Dame in 1972.
  • Keeping long office hours, he sometimes chatted with students who climbed a fire escape to tap on his window late at night.
  • In 1964, he joined with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead a rally at Soldier Field in Chicago in support of landmark civil rights legislation.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
  • During the Vietnam War, he tried to limit demonstrations by imposing a “15 minute rule,” meaning students who disrupted the school’s operation would be given 15 minutes to cease or face expulsion.
  • When, during Hesburgh’s chairmanship in 1972, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights criticized the government for not enforcing anti-discrimination laws,  President Richard Nixon demanded and received his resignation.
  • Fascinated with aviation, he once convinced President Jimmy Carter to allow him to fly aboard the Air Force’s SR-71 Blackbird supersonic spy plane.
  • As a Vatican diplomat, he served as a go-between for the United States and Soviet Union on arms limitation.


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Here’s a short video documentary that the university made about Hesburgh in 2012.


Photo: William Franklin McMahon/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

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