He made them believers

Former students praise 'Father Ted,' who turned Notre Dame coed

By Jodi S. Cohen

Tribune higher education reporter

October 8, 2007

Rev. Ted Hesburgh, University of Notre Dame's legendary president, is 90 years old, his eyesight waning to the point that he can no longer read.

So he hasn't yet dug into his most public birthday present, the sentimental new book "Thanking Father Ted," a tribute to his historic decision to admit women to Notre Dame.

The book includes thank-you notes from about 150 women -- from the first female graduates in the early 1970s to current students -- written as letters to Hesburgh in celebration of his 90th birthday.

The women thank the president for the education and job opportunities they received because of his decision. Dozens thank him for the husbands (and fellow alums) they otherwise might never have met.

They note the irony in Notre Dame, which means "Our Lady," a reference to the Virgin Mary, taking 130 years to admit women. And they describe how in the fall of 1972, the first year women were admitted, men held up signs rating their looks as they entered the dining halls.

Mary Davey Bliley, the first woman to earn an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, describes the day she graduated: "Father, I still remember being up there and getting kissed by you. Thank you for one of the proudest moments of my life."

Many letter writers describe a president who took the time to meet individually with students, sometimes in the middle of the night when his office light was still on. One alumna thanked him for providing a football ticket after she realized, while entering the stadium, that she had a ticket for the following week's game. Another thanked him for sharing Christmas dinner in 1973.

Joya "JJ" De Foor, treasurer of the City of Los Angeles and a 1977 graduate, thanked Hesburgh for meeting with her after she learned a friend was being kicked out of the university.

"It was very late, but you were there. I don't remember the exact conversation, but I do remember that you took the time to reassure a lonely young woman," De Foor wrote. "Although I don't remember the details of that night, I do remember that you bolstered my resolve to help others. You made me feel special, determined, brave and strong. As I write this, my heart is still filled with appreciation."

The book includes a letter from James Lynch, captain of the 1966 championship football team and leader of the "better dead than coed" gang, which fought to keep women out of Notre Dame. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Lynch begins his letter.

"I am eating some very old, very old humble pie," he told a gathering of alumnae recently. His two daughters graduated from Notre Dame, in 1990 and 1993.

For his part, Hesburgh, who in 2000 became the first leader from higher education to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, said he considers coeducation among his greatest accomplishments.

"At the time, I would look out the window here and see the lady on the dome. I thought, 'I will meet that lady someday, I hope.' At 90 years old, it will be sooner rather than later. I thought, 'When I meet her, she will say you had a great university named after me but there were no women there.' At that point, I thought, 'I'm in trouble,'" Hesburgh said in an interview.

Hesburgh said he will ask an assistant, who reads his mail and books for about two hours a day, to read him the thank-you letters.

While Hesburgh said it took a few years for some of the male alumni to come around to the change, he said complaints about coeducation are a thing of the past.

"Alumni were screaming at me until they realized that they have daughters as well as sons. With a lot of them, their sons didn't get in but their daughters did," Hesburgh said. "Once that happened, I was home free."

Dear Father Hesburgh,

There are still times when I am reminded of how lucky I was to be in that first class of entering freshmen women and of being the first female Dome editor, but they don't compare to the times when I realize how fortunate I was to be applying to college when you were deciding that Notre Dame needed to enlarge its "real world." Thank you, Father Ted, for allowing Marty and I to meet, and for our sons and daughters to attend Notre Dame. Without you, this would not have been possible!

Susan Darin Hagan
Class of '76

Dear Father Ted,

One Sunday afternoon in October 1985 you presented a lecture in the Center for Social Concerns, and afterward, I ambushed you. As only a college student can be, I was incensed about the injustice of a disciplinary action the university had taken against two of my friends. Your response to being accosted was to invite me for a walk.

We ambled around St. Joseph's Lake for the next hour and a half. To this day, I remember that you were calm yet resolute, always the teacher, the strolling embodiment of grace. The respect you showed me that day is a lesson I try never to forget, one of dignity.

Of course, human dignity as an unconditional gift from God was a lesson to which you dedicated your life. For numerous decades, through numerous organizations, and on numerous continents, you worked to lift people up, to show them that they are, by their being, worthy of honor and respect.

Back at home, at Notre Dame, you did the same thing. By opening Notre Dame's doors to women in 1972, you raised the dignity of women and men. You insisted women would make Notre Dame a better university. Thank you for that humbling respect and incredible opportunity.

At the end of that Sunday walk in 1985 you offered to buy me a soda. I think I was too overwhelmed at the time to accept. If I could have that moment back now, I would raise my glass to toast you and the dignity you encourage in all of us.

As ever, Sara Hamilton Magill
Class of '86
Editor in chief, Observer newspaper, 1985-1986

Dear Father Ted,

This letter is to thank you for teaching me a valuable lesson. It was May 6, 1977. A picnic was planned on the South Quad to mark your twenty-fifth anniversary as president of the University of Notre Dame. After hearing you say mass, my friends and I headed to the picnic. When I reached the food-line checker I was told that it would cost me $10 because I lived off campus. I was incensed, as only a soon-to-be graduated twenty-two-year-old know-it-all could be. I had to borrow the money so I could stay.

As soon as I got home I wrote you a letter describing the incident. I felt better after having expressed my indignation. Until ... four days later when I received your reply. You enclosed two $5 bills stating, "I would be happy to have you as my guest." I was mortified.

But always the educator, you chose to enclose my original letter with your reply. Reading my self-righteous missive next to your gracious reply was a lesson I would never forget. Thirty years and many moves later the letter is still one of my most valuable possessions. I take it out whenever I am feeling a little too full of myself and am reminded of the humble act of a great man. Thank you, Father.

Best regards,
Kathleen Dickinson Villano
Class of '77

Dear Father Hesburgh,

Thank you for your mentorship and guidance during my undergraduate years at Notre Dame. You continually challenged me to grow as a leader and as a human being. Whether it was over lunch at the Morris Inn, in a meeting about student life, or during mass with my friends and family in the library chapel, you always sent me off with much to think about -- a personal challenge ...

I remember you describing with pride your decision to bring coeducation to Notre Dame. ... Then you told us that you felt the mission of coeducation would be complete when a woman led the students of Notre Dame as student body president. And you thought I should consider it. Your encouragement that day and in the year following helped give me the confidence to run for student body president.

Thank you for bringing coeducation to Notre Dame. We ARE forever grateful.

With heartfelt thanks,
Brooke Norton Lais
Class of '02
First woman student body president 2001-2002