The course of my friendship with Father Hesburgh runs some 60 years from when I was a student at Notre Dame to my last visit with him seven months before he died. I am no exception. Father Ted was close to many families and supporters of Notre Dame and many persons with whom he worked in the interests of civil rights, international peace, and social justice. Still, I think my story is unique. Father took many opportunities to call me and Faith to get together for Mass or share meals with friends.
I have already recounted one joint experience in helping start the Peace Corps in Chile. It was Father Ted who told Shriver the slightly embellished story of my work in the mountains of Chile, which ended up in a speech by President Kennedy and landed me my 15 minutes of fame.
Here I share a few other highlights of our relationship:
Confronting the Curia
In November 1963, Father Ted asked if I could join him at Idelwild Airport (not yet renamed “JFK”) while waiting for a plane to Rome. He had been summoned by the Roman Curia. As the recently-elected president of the International Federation of Catholic Colleges, he had taken steps to revitalize this largely inactive and ineffective organization. His changes did not go well with a cardinal and an archbishop who oversaw all seminaries and Catholic colleges.
A few days later Father and I met again at the airport.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“It was typical of the Curia,” he said. “They sat me down and told me all the bad things I had done and then they tried to shove a compromise down my throat.” The federation would be controlled by a six-person panel, including a Monsignor McDonald, then president of Catholic University in the U.S. and the person Father Ted had defeated in his election.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I told them that I had been elected, not Monsignor McDonald, and then I walked out of the room and came home.”
Father ultimately won the battle by appealing directly to his friend, Pope Paul VI, and months later received a letter of apology from the offending archbishop.
Taking on Twentieth Century Fox
In the spring of 1964, Father invited me to join him again at the airport to observe a meeting he was conducting with Judge David Peck, a former New York State judge, now in private practice. The subject was Notre Dame’s legal efforts to stop the release of a movie entitled “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.” The film starred Shirley MacLaine and Peter Ustinov and contained a tawdry scene showing Notre Dame football players being feted the night before a game by belly dancers and harem girls. To show you how dumb the film was, Notre Dame lost the game with Shirley MacLaine scoring the winning touchdown!
I listened to Judge Peck explain to Father Ted all the reasons why his lawsuit would fail. He took it all in and then authorized Peck’s law firm to proceed anyway. After some initial success, New York’s High Court of Appeals allowed Twentieth Century Fox to release the film, but not before Father Hesburgh did everything he could to protect the reputation of the university.
Taking on Pinochet
In 1976, Chile was suffering under the repressive Pinochet government and Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, Archbishop of Santiago, had asked Father’s assistance in obtaining funds for his human rights work. Father asked if I could help him obtain support for the Cardinal’s efforts, especially those aimed at finding work for academics who were being forced to leave Chile under the circumstances.
Our sights soon focused on a large trust fund at the Inter-American Development Bank, controlled by the United States government, which was about to provide $8 million to the Pinochet government. Our lobbying efforts managed to put a hold on these funds for three years. Pinochet was furious. We learned that on at least one occasion (a dinner at the Pen and Pencil restaurant in New York City) we had been under surveillance by Chile’s dreaded secret police. A right-wing newspaper in Chile, La Segunda, railed against the “priest and left-wing businessman” (the only time I have been referred to as left-wing) who were trying to “funnel funds to Pinochet’s opposition.” We were finally able to do that. The $8 million went to the Inter-American Foundation which went on to provide some $4.6 million to human rights and social development programs supported by Cardinal Silva.
A Mass in the Garden
In May of 1977, Father came to DC to receive an honorary degree from the Georgetown University law school (as of 2013, he held the world’s record for the most honorary degrees: 150). Before the graduation exercises, he said Mass in my garden in Georgetown. What was most significant about that day was that Faith came to the Mass, and we had our first date that evening. After the Mass, I accompanied Father to the graduation where he was honored along with Coretta Scott King and Mother Teresa.
A Video Tribute to Sarge
Bill Josephson was Sarge Shriver’s legal counsel at the Peace Corps, law partner, and devoted friend. Bill is Senior Advisor to the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute, a trust set up with a $10 million appropriation from the Congress to honor Sargent Shriver’s memory. In early 2014, Bill asked me if Father Ted could deliver a talk in Chicago on “the spirituality of Sargent Shriver.” I called Melanie, Father’s assistant, to arrange this; but she said that Father Ted was no longer well enough to travel. I then offered to produce a video of Father Ted speaking about Sarge’s commitment to his faith, as a gift from me to the Institute.
I interviewed him on June 25, 2014. It was one of the last interviews he ever did. He spoke not just about Sarge’s faith, but about the Peace Corps volunteers he knew in Chile, and his trip to Chicago for a civil rights rally with Martin Luther King (admitting to exceeding the speed limit to get there!) The video is available at this link.
When the half-hour interview ended, we chatted in his office in the Hesburgh Library overlooking the campus and the golden dome. Father sat with his feet on his desk, smoking one of his favorite cigars and said, “Tom, tell me more about the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute.”
I told him about the good work the Institute does and about the $10 million appropriation. Then he turned to me, ever the Notre Dame fundraiser, and said, “Can we get some of that money?”