Notre Dame grads gather to network, visit

Eileen O. Daday's good news

Posted Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It was somewhat of a historic gathering that took place Thursday in a third-floor dining room at the Chicago Athletic Club.

More than 230 women filled the room. All of them, like me, were University of Notre Dame graduates, and this was a first attempt by alumni representatives to tap into our collective resources.

Not financial resources, well not yet, as much as our professional expertise, to serve as leaders and mentors to younger graduates seeking to further their careers.

Consequently, the chance to network was a draw, but the real hook for most of us was to hear the university's former president, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, address us and wish him a happy birthday. He turns 89 next week.

Women like Mary Fran Callahan of Arlington Heights attended, and had written Hesburgh a birthday letter to thank him for his vision. She is a senior vice president and treasurer with Zurich American in Schaumburg, who graduated in 1983.

Others, like Kathleen O'Connor of Barrington, an executive development consultant, and 1991 graduate, wrote to Hesburgh to thank him for allowing her to continue her family's legacy at Notre Dame.

At my table alone were an oncology nurse, a lawyer, judge, business executive and law school administrator, to name just a few. Hesburgh was the university's youngest president when he took over in 1952, the week before he turned 35. He then ran it for the next 35 years, until 1987, in partnership with his colleague, the Rev. Edmund Joyce. What held such fascination for most of there was to hear — from Hesburgh himself — what drove him to break down the long entrenched barriers, and admit women to the university.

The decision took effect in 1972, and I began there in 1973.

"It does my heart good, my experiment was right," Hesburgh told us. "With women at Notre Dame, it's a much healthier place, a much more intellectual place, a more cultural place, and a better place today because nearly 50 percent are women."

He began by telling us about his doctoral subject, researched in 1945 at Catholic University. It examined role of lay people in the Catholic Church. That theme would guide him, it turns out, through his historic leadership of Notre Dame.

When asked to describe his major accomplishments as university president, Hesburgh tells people two things: turning over the university to a lay board of governance, from the Congregation of the Holy Cross which founded it; and opening the formerly all-male college, to women.

"If Notre Dame had one big failing," Hesburgh told the crowd, "it was that we were addressing only half of the Catholic Church."

Hesburgh received a standing ovation, and a binder filled with letters from all of us thanking him for making the decision that changed all of our lives. He seemed genuinely touched at the outpouring, and far younger than his birthday would indicate.

"You have made this old guy proud," he said, "of what you are doing and what you have done."