“Like the Latin for fingernails”: Remembering Hesburgh

Students walked out on Pence’s commencement speech today at Notre Dame. Good. I’m reposting this piece from a few years ago because readers might be interested in the other time ND students protested a commencement speaker, Ronald Reagan in 1981.

We, the class of ’81, didn’t walk out. This year’s students look to be braver than we were….

See below.


When it comes to the Catholic Church and the priesthood, to say that I am deeply conflicted does not begin to get at it. But reading this morning about the death, and the legacy, of Father Ted Hesburgh brought me to tears, and not for just a few seconds. I am still wiping them away.

There are two good appreciations at the Post and the Times, and I am sure hundreds more to come.

Hesburgh was outspokenly liberal and a man of ideas, who was at ease with the powerful but never a panderer to power. The Post piece ends with something of a shot at the current breed of academic CEOs:

In 2001, Father Hesburgh lamented that university presidents had become distant from public affairs.

“Once upon a time chief executives in higher education talked to the press about military policy in the same breath as the Constitutional amendment for the 18-year-old vote, but I wonder whether we’d hear them taking stands on similar topics now,” he wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Where we once had a fellowship of public intellectuals,” Father Hesburgh asked, “do we now have insulated chief executives intent on keeping the complicated machinery of American higher education running smoothly?”


I loved the “fishing, steaks and martinis” story, also from the Post piece:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Father Hesburgh to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission at its inception in 1957, a position he held for 15 years, immersing him in confrontations over racial discrimination.

In one of its first actions, the commission held hearings in Southern states to investigate the suppression of the black vote. When it came time to write a report to Congress, Father Hesburgh brought the commission in 1959 to Notre Dame’s Land O’Lakes retreat in Wisconsin for a day of fishing, steaks and martinis — and votes on recommendations that later influenced civil rights legislation.

Eleven proposals won unanimous support from the six commissioners, and a 12th won approval from five. The degree of consensus shocked Eisenhower.

“I told Ike that he had not appointed just Republicans and Democrats or Northerners and Southerners, he had appointed six fishermen,” Father Hesburgh recounted in “God, Country, Notre Dame,” a 1999 memoir written with Jerry Reedy. Eisenhower replied that more federal commissions should be sent to Land O’Lakes to resolve disputes.


What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere. Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.


Hesburgh was an almost mythic presence at ND when I was there. My memory of my four years Under the Golden Dome, from 1977 to 1981, are pretty hazy, but I’m fairly sure I only stood face to face with the great man on two occasions.

The first time was on the very last day of the 1980 spring term. A friend and I had to drop off our housing election forms for senior year. We were stoked about going off-campus and maybe a little panicked we would be forced to pay for on-campus housing if we missed the deadline, so we trudged over to the Administration Building with our forms. It was Saturday and the building was locked up tight. For some reason we banged on the basement door. Nothing. We turned to leave. Then, footsteps. And yes, Father Ted himself threw open the door.

We yammered something about our housing forms and he was all, “Yes, yes, of course. I’ll take them,” and he invited us to introduce ourselves. My friend Chris stuck out his hand and it turned out Hesburgh was on a first-name basis with Chris’ older brother and father, both alums. Chris and Father Ted shot the breeze for a few more minutes and then a lull came and it was my turn to say something.

I blurted out: “Uh, um, I’m Tim Ungs, from Minneapolis.”

He paused a beat, then gazed down at the back of his hand, and said pensively, “Ah, Ungs… like the Latin for fingernails….”


My second face-to-face was when Father Ted handed me my diploma at commencement.

Like maybe a couple hundred other students I had white tape on my graduation cap in tepid protest of Ronald Reagan’s being invited as the commencement speaker (also on hand were Pat O’Brien and Kurt Waldheim).

Reagan’s being chosen as speaker was, in retrospect, not at all unusual. If Hesburgh’s status as America’s preeminent Catholic gave him the sway to have every president come to campus  when he calls them, well, why not Reagan?


But I think people forget how polarizing Reagan was in his day, and his being guest of honor at commencement (his first public appearance since the attempted assassination) divided the campus. That polarization even made it into this history of commencement ceremonies from the Notre Dame alumni magazine.

 Vocal protests against Reagan’s presence at Notre Dame created an especially tense atmosphere. “Every liberal advocacy group, including many from the Catholic left, had been waiting for an opportunity to protest what they considered Reagan’s lack of concern for society’s marginalized members,” [Richard] Conklin [former University spokesman] recalls. More than 1,500 protesters marched outside the Joyce Center while Reagan spoke. Inside, a few students reportedly wore white arm bands and covered their mortar boards with white paper.

Reportedly? I was one of them and we were more than a few.

I remember fairly vividly one gathering at the end of April protesting the savagery of Reagan’s policies, many of which, sadly, have since become mainstream. What made the rally stand out in my memory was that a group of student counter-demonstrators came forward, shouted, and pelted the speakers with eggs. I remember one student was reading poetry in her father’s Notre Dame letter sweater when the eggs rained down. English professor Joseph Buttigieg (whose son is now mayor of South Bend) was treated especially badly as I remember. He contrasted the decorous manifesto of the Students Concerned about Commencement with the counter-protesters’ “Don’t Give the Gipp No Lipp” banner (“a poster made up of mono-syllabids”).



That’s a distillation of my memory of Notre Dame. A small core of passionate progressive people in a generally reactionary environment. That Hesburgh managed to make the university as open-minded as it has become is a testament largely to his energy and powerful personality. Hesburgh didn’t have to embrace civil rights, didn’t have to transfer university governance to a board of lay trustees, didn’t have to be first to admit women undergraduates, didn’t have to battle the Vatican and assert the “Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

He didn’t have to. But he did. RIP Father Ted.


“Like the Latin for fingernails”: Remembering Hesburgh

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