SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, whose 35-year tenure as president of the University of Notre Dame ends with the academic year, tells two anecdotes to describe just who he is--and who he is not.
In the latter story, a 35-year-old Hesburgh is holding a series of West Coast news conferences as the newly installed Notre Dame president.
It's 1952. Knute Rockne, the legendary Notre Dame football coach, has been dead more than 20 years. Current coach Frank Leahy has won three national championships and will win a fourth.
"The only people who turned up at the press conferences were sports writers," Hesburgh recalled in an interview. "I said, 'Do you want to talk about education?' And they said, 'We want to talk about football.' "
Hesburgh had some ideas about his goals for Notre Dame, a school with a tiny endowment and a faculty living in genteel poverty. But a winning football team was not among them.
"I said, 'I'm not the football coach,' and that was it. Sportswriters stopped attending my press conferences."
In his other anecdote, it's 1982, and Hesburgh, his wavy black hair turned silver, steps from a helicopter in El Salvador as a member of a team of American observers monitoring that nation's presidential election.
Thousands of Salvadorans have walked miles to the polls, always within the sound and danger of small-arms fire.
At one point, he said, "I saw this heartbreaking procession coming through the trees, a line of people bringing a coffin."
It carried the body of a young Salvadoran, shot at a polling place. His mother walked beside the coffin, but no priest accompanied the mourners. Hesburgh consoled the mother and performed simple rites for the victim in Spanish.
"I gave him a blessing and said the prayers of burial, and gave her a rosary I had gotten from the Pope," Hesburgh said.
Hesburgh says he is first a priest, but many observers of his long career see instead a skilled political figure who confronted students and presidents, demanding accountability from both, or an astute administrator who wrought profound changes at Notre Dame.
Looking back over Hesburgh's tenure, Prof. Robert Schmuhl, who is writing a book about Notre Dame, said, "You see the dual commitment to academic achievement and to religious principles. In his work outside the university, he has combined a tough-minded realism about social and political problems with a passion for examining the moral dimensions of these problems."
His successor, the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, a theologian and associate provost at Notre Dame, was named the university's 16th president earlier this month.
Under Hesburgh, the annual operating budget has climbed from $9.7 million to $167 million in 1985. The endowment has soared from $10 million to at least $330 million. The library collection has risen from 250,000 books to about 1.5 million, with space for twice as many.
Enrollment has doubled to nearly 10,000 students, and the faculty has tripled, with salaries becoming among the nation's highest. The value of endowed scholarships has risen from $100,000 to $50 million.
On Friday, Notre Dame's trustees meet to choose Hesburgh's successor.
"I think the fundamental concern (of the president) is for the university itself and its growth and development, and to provide all your colleagues and co-workers with a vision," Hesburgh said.
"There are two jobs at hand," he continued. "The first is to have a great university, a great faculty, great facilities, a certain panache, or esprit.
"After that, if you want it to be a Catholic university, you have to take that whole institution and somehow suffuse it with a faith. It's a place where the intellectual is the highest part of the endeavor, but the moral part of the endeavor is also important."
In 1969, when 200 student demonstrators confronted police officers in a campus protest over the cancellation of a film that was to have been shown during a seminar, Hesburgh threatened them with expulsion. Ultimately, 10 students were suspended for a semester.
Supported by Nixon
Hesburgh was criticized by supporters of Democratic presidential candidates Eugene J. McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, who said he disregarded the students' rights of due process. But President Richard M. Nixon praised him for upholding "the rule of reason and not the rule of force."
Nonetheless, Nixon was sharply criticized by Hesburgh, who, as chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, said the lack of progress toward ensuring civil rights left the present generation of black citizens with little hope of real social and political advancement in their lifetimes.
Hesburgh was forced off the commission after Nixon's reelection in 1972, and he later said, "Nixon's Administration is made up of hucksters, public relations men. . . . They would rather sell something than do something."
On campus, meanwhile, he oversaw major changes. In 1967, control of the university was shifted from the Holy Cross priests, who founded Notre Dame in 1842, to a lay board. Five years later, Notre Dame admitted its first undergraduate women.
Studied at Notre Dame
Hesburgh, reared in Syracuse, N.Y., first arrived at Notre Dame in the 1930s as a student. He received a bachelor's degree from Gregorian University in Rome in 1939.
He was ordained a priest at Notre Dame in 1943 and joined the faculty two years later after receiving a doctorate in theology at Catholic University in Washington.
Hesburgh was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During the years of Pope Paul VI, Hesburgh twice rejected a bishopric, he told Schmuhl in an interview. "In both cases, we were right in the middle of major fund-raising drives," Hesburgh said, "and I couldn't walk away."