Thank you, Father Ted

Women grads honor Hesburgh for coeducation.


Tribune Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Thirty-four years after the first woman earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Notre Dame, several hundred women graduates thanked the man who made it possible.

The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Notre Dame's president from 1952 to 1987, was feted and thanked Thursday at a luncheon in downtown Chicago attended by 230 Notre Dame alumnae.

"This is a wonderful day for me. It's like coming home in a way," said Hesburgh, who will turn 89 on May 25.

Hesburgh said there were two decisions he was most proud of during his presidency: transferring governance of the university to a board of lay trustees and admitting women.

Hesburgh accepted the invitation to speak at the lunch as part of a new alumnae leadership program. He didn't know there was a secret agenda.The women gathered to help him celebrate his upcoming birthday and to formally thank him for opening Notre Dame to women undergraduates.

Hesburgh opened a gift box containing about 350 thank-you letters from women graduates describing the impact their Notre Dame education has had on their lives. The first class of women undergraduates enrolled in 1972.Hesburgh said the all-male Notre Dame was a coarse place, with a locker-room atmosphere in the residence halls. "If Notre Dame had one big failing, it was the fact that it was only addressing half of the Catholic Church," he said of those days.

After months of merger discussions with Saint Mary's College, no agreement was reached. "You say you want to marry us, but you don't want to take our name and you don't want to live with us," he recalled telling the nuns in November 1971. The merger was off.

Notre Dame began admitting women undergraduates the following year."It does my heart good. The experiment was right," he said, noting many other all-male institutions followed Notre Dame and became coeducational.

"I think we are a much healthier place today. We certainly are a more intellectual place today," Hesburgh said. "I have to say we're a better place because about 50 percent of our students today are women."

The priest said he looks forward to the day when a woman will be president of the United States.

Hesburgh recalled kissing 36 girls goodbye as a teenager on the night before he left for the seminary. There were plenty of hugs and kisses to go around Thursday, too, as women gathered around Hesburgh for photos and to offer words of gratitude.

Some of the women from the early years recall being the only female in some classes or facing professors who didn't want to teach women. Others remember having to be tough when faced by people who told women that they were taking student slots that men deserved.Mary Davey Bliley, of Richmond, Va., described how in 1972 she became the first woman undergraduate to earn a degree.

She was among the Saint Mary's students who had been earning credits at Notre Dame while the two schools planned to merge. When the merger fell through, Bliley was told her business credits at Notre Dame would not allow her to earn a Saint Mary's diploma.

Hesburgh and Vincent Raymond, a Notre Dame business dean, intervened and decided she would receive a Notre Dame diploma. She later went on to an international business career, marriage and raising two sons.

"I was given an incredible opportunity by the University of Notre Dame," she said. "Father Hesburgh opened up doors that I never could have opened on my own."