Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., has passed away. I guess I knew this day would come—he was 97 years old—but it has always been a comfort to think Father Ted was still walking the Earth. As President of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, including the years I attended, he came to personify the school. He wasn’t a scientist, but he was very much a friend to science.
Of his life as a priest, theologian, educator, administrator, diplomat, and champion of civil rights, you can read good accounts from the South Bend Tribune, the New York Times, or Notre Dame’s memorial site. Let me tell you a bit about his connections to science and technology.
In his decades of service, Ted Hesburgh helped his university, the Catholic Church, the United States, and the people of the world navigate the rushing waters of change flowing though the Twentieth Century. Some of this change stemmed from science and technology, with which Father Ted was always willing to engage.
- His principal legacy on campus will be his efforts to make Notre Dame worthy of recognition as an excellent center of scholarship. This included developing engineering and science faculty and facilities. If you’ll forgive a parochial point of view, this affected me personally, since I was seeking a college that was strong in science. By the time I enrolled in 1972, Notre Dame had particle accelerators for nuclear and radiochemical research. I learned to operate and maintain an accelerator. In high-energy physics, Notre Dame was part of a consortium of universities operating Fermilab, the government-owned lab near Chicago. A Notre Dame professor gave me a tour, and I loved the place; three years later, I was working at Fermilab, and giving tours myself.
- From 1956 until 1970 Father Hesburgh was the Vatican’s representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency. This United Nations agency was concerned with the peaceful use of nuclear energy and with limiting the nuclear arms race. Behind the scenes, Father Hesburgh’s efforts often overcame Cold War tensions to keep communication open between Soviet and American diplomats.
- In 2010 I was invited to Green Bank, West Virginia, first home of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, to celebrate fifty years of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In researching for my talk, I was delighted to find that Father Ted had preceded me. During the pioneering summer of 1960 when Project Ozma was launching the first systematic search for intelligent transmissions, he visited Green Bank to see the radio telescope in action. Years later, in 1977, he was invited to write a foreword to the proceedings of a NASA workshop on SETI, which can be read here.
- Father Hesburgh was a member of the National Science Board from 1954 to 1966, guiding the National Science Foundation. These duties led him as far afield as Antarctica. In thanks for his services to astronomy, Professor Frank K. Edmonson of Indiana University named a main-belt asteroid 1952 Hesburgh.
- Father Ted was a lifelong aviation buff, always eager to ride in whatever aircraft he could. Mindful of Hesburgh’s service to multiple government commissions, in 1979 President Jimmy Carter granted his request for a ride in an SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane, the Air Force’s fastest jet. It took several days of testing and training, but Father Ted finally donned an orange pressure suit and took to the air. He was unable to divulge his top speed, for security reasons, but he gleefully noted that he’d exceeded Mach 3.35, or 2193 miles per hour. I’m pretty sure that he was the fastest Catholic priest ever, and at over 80,000 feet, the highest as well.
Those are just a few snapshots from a remarkable life. Father Ted was a friend of my parents when they were all at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College in the 1940s. Years later, I met him myself. For an important and busy guy, he was quite easygoing, and always seemed to have time for a friendly word with a student. I am fortunate to have known him.
(He had the misfortune to die on the same day as someone more famous, the actor Leonard Nimoy. On Google News, there are 71,000 hits on “Hesburgh” and 2,600,000 on “Nimoy.” Nevertheless I hope Father Ted manages to catch some of the attention he deserves.)
I was going to conclude with something like “we shall not see his like again.” But, you know, I hope we do see his like again. The world could certainly use more people like him. Rest in peace, Father Ted.