By John Nagy
It was all for him, a celebration of 96 years of a life well-lived, 70 of them as a Catholic priest from Notre Dame, Indiana.
The personal invitation from U.S. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. The applause as he entered the wood-paneled Rayburn Room on the House side of the U.S. Capitol. The intimate invocation from Theodore Cardinal McCarrick. The surprise appearance of Vice President Joe Biden. The personal anecdotes, heartfelt adulation, and hugs shared by a lineup of senators and members of Congress.
Then there was the double-wide chocolate cake, big enough to feed a few hundred Notre Dame alumni and other Capitol Hill well-wishers and cheerfully inscribed, “Happy Birthday, Father Hesburgh.”
When it came time for him to speak, more than a half-hour into his national birthday party, Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, C.S.C., ’39 rose from his seat and stepped toward the podium escorted by University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., ’76, ’78 M.A., and Ambassador Timothy Roemer ’81 M.A., ’85 Ph.D., who moments before had praised Hesburgh as a priest, civil-rights champion, and president of the University of Notre Dame.
Hands firm on the podium, Hesburgh began humbly, dismissing all the storytelling with an Italian saying that he then translated for the benefit of his all-American audience: “By golly, it may not all be true, but it sure sounds good.”
Father Hesburgh’s day trip to Washington, D.C., on May 22 began with a 20-minute visit in the White House with President Barack Obama. When he mentioned the private audience in his remarks to the Rayburn crowd, Pelosi jumped on the chance to tease him. “How’d it go?” she asked. “Tell us about it.”
He deftly sidestepped the question. But many in the elegant House chamber adjacent to Pelosi’s office noted how fitting it was that Father Hesburgh, who had made history at several key moments in his life simply by bringing people together, was at it again.
Pelosi, the top House Democrat, co-hosted Father Hesburgh with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who was expected but could not attend the 3 p.m. gathering. Both members of Indiana’s split-party U.S. Senate delegation, Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly ’77, ’81 J.D., offered appreciative reflections. In all, it was a genuinely bipartisan affair that brought politicians and staffers from “both sides of the Capitol, both sides of the aisle, and all sides of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Pelosi said.
Cardinal McCarrick, the other elder statesman of the American Church present in the room, delivered an affectionate preamble to his invocation that recalled remarks he made at the 2008 dedication of the U.S. Institute for Peace headquarters, which Father Hesburgh helped through extensive fundraising to build near the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials on the National Mall.
McCarrick found symbolism in the lights illuminating those three buildings for travelers crossing the Potomac River into the city at night.
“Father Hesburgh brought to this country a new understanding of what a university education should be,” McCarrick said. Hesburgh, he added, also advanced important work those two American presidents had done: religious freedom in Jefferson’s case and civil rights for all Americans in Lincoln’s. Hesburgh’s light, he said, shines in all three.
“Every time we see another birthday, he gets younger and younger and more influential than ever in the life of our country,” McCarrick said.
The party came complete with birthday gifts — a framed copy of the text of Pelosi’s memorial to Hesburgh as it appears in the Congressional Record, and a triangular wood-and-glass case containing the flag flown over the Capitol in his honor earlier in the day.
Pelosi’s speech to the House noted the distinction Father Hesburgh received in April when the U.S. Navy named him an honorary chaplain at a ceremony on campus. For Hesburgh, it was the realization of a lifelong dream. When Pelosi congratulated him in person, Hesburgh slowly raised his hand in a salute.
To the right of the podium on an easel stood the famous photograph — on loan from the National Portrait Gallery — of Hesburgh singing, arm in arm with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at a Chicago rally in support of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Pelosi wondered aloud how long she might be able to hang on to the photograph. “Don’t get too attached,” gallery director Kim Sajet shot back.
Biden recalled criticism of Hesburgh’s work as a Civil Rights Commissioner he’d heard as a young man in his hometown parish. He praised Hesburgh because he did not simply educate Notre Dame students. “You awakened their conscience,” Biden said.
“You’re one of the most powerful unelected officials this nation has ever seen,” he added.
Visibly moved, Father Hesburgh was having none of it. “No one,” he said, “could be as good as the guy you portrayed up here.”
He tried to direct the celebratory spirit toward Notre Dame. Calling America “an enormously beautiful dream,” he described the school he led for 35 years as a place where young people love being Americans and love trying to make the world a better place.
“My heart swells with pride at seeing you all here in the nation’s capital,” he told the group, which included several members of Congress who graduated either from Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s College.
Hesburgh thanked Pelosi for “a very wonderful day that I’ll never forget.”
But it was a football coach, not a politician, who may have found the words that most in the room wanted to say.
Ten minutes after the conclusion of the formal program, as people waited in line to offer Father Hesburgh their own birthday wishes, former Notre Dame head football coach Gerry Faust took the microphone to tell about a humbling plane trip early in his Notre Dame tenure when he found himself enjoying a rare seat upgrade and Father Hesburgh riding economy class. Hesburgh kidded him for already being more recognizable than he was after nearly three decades as president of Notre Dame.
“I couldn’t get off that plane fast enough,” Faust said.
“I’ve got thousands of stories of Father Hesburgh [but] I’m going to tell you,” the former coach continued, his voice beginning to break. “Great president. Great priest. And a great person.
“I love him. I couldn’t have asked to work for a better man.”