Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh and two male students outside of Farley Hall, 1949.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Rise to the Presidency


While Father Hesburgh was an instructor in the Religion Department, rector of the veterans at Notre Dame at Badin Hall, and chaplain of Vetville, the community of married veterans on campus, Notre Dame President Father John Cavanaugh approached him about becoming dean of the College of Arts and Letters. Father Hesburgh recalled in his autobiography, "I felt an aversion to all the paperwork that goes with being a dean; I didn't want to be an administrator of any kind, and I told Cavanaugh that. Kindly, he did not persist, and that was the end of it, or so I thought."

In the summer of 1948, life began to change quickly for Father Hesburgh. Father Cavanaugh approached him about going into administration, but Father Hesburgh was reticent. Father Hesburgh admitted to him, "Isn't it curious that by doing what I was told to do, rather than what I thought I wanted, I've managed to have a happy life."

Farley Hall

After having been rector of the veterans of Badin Hall, who were all a bit older and more mature, it was a new experience for Father Hesburgh to be in charge of the freshmen of Farley Hall. He remembered the "explosive mixture of 330 seventeen- and eighteen-year-old freshmen stuffed two and three to a room, away from home for the first time, innocent and ignorant of caring for themselves." He was working on turning his class notes into a book and found the only time he had to do so was between the hours of midnight and two a.m.. Then he would be up again at seven a.m. for daily Mass in the hall chapel.

Executive Vice President

At the end of the academic year, in the spring of 1949, Father Hesburgh ran into Father Cavanaugh on the way to the Crypt at Sacred Heart Church to receive their priestly "obediences," or assignments, for the next year. As they approached the chapel, Father Cavanaugh said to Father Hesburgh, "By the way, Ted, you're going to be made vice president today." He replied, "Oh, come on, Father John, you've stuck me with a department and a hall, but vice president? God in Heaven, I don't want to be a vice president." Thinking Father Cavanaugh was joking, Father Hesburgh was shocked when his name was called. He was one of the youngest priests there and would be executive vice president, in charge of priests who were older and more experienced.

According to historian Michael O'Brien in Hesburgh, A Biography, "In the late 1940s Notre Dame had virtually no scholarship funds or endowment, no liberal arts building, no science building, an inadequate library, and a shortage of dormitories." He added, "Salaries were low and the lay faculty lived in genteel poverty. With most power vested in the president, the university was authoritarian in structure." Father Cavanaugh was overburdened by the amount of work that lay on his shoulders, and sought to create a structure to better disburse work. Notre Dame was lucky to have an intellectual and former businessman as president. According to O'Brien, "In 1947 Cavanaugh established the Notre Dame Foundation, the first ongoing fund-raising program in the university's history. He recruited faculty from Europe, and these scholars helped enrich and professionalize the Notre Dame faculty."

Commerce (Business School) Advisory Council meeting, May 16, 1952. Clockwise from lower left: Hugh Dean, James Gerity, Jr., O.J. Carson, Robert H. O'Brien, Charles M. Reagan, James E. Coston, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, Edward J. Quinn, John F. O'Shaughnessy, Eugene J. Hynes, James M. Haggar, William R. Daley, Robert L. Hamilton, Peter C. Reilly, Jr.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.



Father Cavanaugh was in the process of reorganizing the administration of Notre Dame, and sought out Father Hesburgh's help. Father Hesburgh recalled, "My first job was to write up an administrative procedure and a job description for each vice president's area of responsibility, including my own." He would address academics, student affairs, finance, and public relations. Father Cavanaugh told Father Hesburgh, "'I want articles of administration, lines of authority, organizational charts, and areas of responsibility, the whole works.'" Father Hesburgh addressed problems he saw in various departments across the University. According to O'Brien, Father Hesburgh discovered the University had no budget, and stated in a memo to Father Cavanaugh that it was a miracle they had survived thus far without one. "Maybe we should begin the budget meetings with a prayer to the Holy Spirit and end them with a Hail Mary."

When Father Hesburgh was tasked with reorganizing athletics, he worked with football coach, Frank Leahy, "who happened to be the most famous, most talented football coach in the country." Father Hesburgh installed an athletic director who reported to the executive vice president, cut back spending, limited the number of complimentary football tickets that were disbursed, and enforced strict compliance of the Big Ten Conference rule with regard to the number of players to travel to away games.

The Morris Inn exterior, 1950s.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.



In addition to his various other duties, Father Hesburgh was put in charge of five construction projects on campus: Fisher Hall, Nieuwland Science Hall, O'Shaughnessy Hall, the Morris Inn, and the power plant. He was to oversee them from start to finish. Father Hesburgh recalled in his autobiography, "My education in the complex world of architecture, design, construction, and building materials was swift and awesome. I learned because I had to." The style of architecture at Notre Dame was largely Collegiate Gothic, and for the most part, buildings were designed prior to any consideration for function. Father Hesburgh revamped the way buildings were erected at Notre Dame and placed function over form. He would write up detailed instructions, let architectural firms bid for design of a particular building, and then Notre Dame would choose the best design at the best cost. Rather than using the same construction company as in the past, Father Hesburgh would take sealed bids on construction. In the end, he saved the University a great deal of money.

Dome yearbook 1954, page 82: Feature page of O'Shaughnessy Hall with an exterior and interior photo.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


It was a busy three years and an unexpected turn in Father Hesburgh's life. But he was clearly the right man for the job. Father Hesburgh reflected on his time as executive vice president:

During those three years, Cavanaugh assigned to me a multiplicity of overlapping projects, both large and small, more than I thought I could handle, and I sometimes wondered about his seemingly unbounded faith in me. And yet, somehow, I rose to the occasion; a job had to be done and one did it, and learned something on the way.

President of Notre Dame

Through the course of those three years, Father Cavanaugh seemed to be gradually giving more and more responsibilities to Father Hesburgh. He spent a summer away in Rome at a meeting of the Holy Cross Congregation, then his health required him to recover in Florida for a couple months in early 1952. There was no question who Father Cavanaugh's successor would be when he came to the end of his six-year term that June. Prior to the handing out of the yearly obediences, Father Hesburgh was asked who he wanted as vice president. He recalled in his autobiography, "Nevertheless, my stomach flipped over when I heard him announce, 'Ted Hesburgh, president.'"

After obediences in the chapel, Father Cavanaugh simply handed Father Hesburgh the key to his office, saying, "'I promised to give a talk tonight to the Christian Family Movement over at Veterans Hall. Now that you're president, you have to do it. Good luck. I'm off to New York.'"

Obediences - Rev. John J. Cavanaugh and Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh shaking hands in front of a statue of Mary, 1952. 
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.


Getting the Run Around

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh's Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about the frustrations of getting building materials during the Korean War


Well, anyway, I went for six months during that Korean War trying to get allocations. I remember I needed sixty tons of steel for the water tower at the Steam Plant. We had to put that tower in to get water pressure for the hundred buildings in case of fire and also to get some fresh water stored-it's a half million gallons. I needed copper piping. I needed all kinds of steel rods for reinforcing. And what happened was what happens, I guess, with every agency. You send the forms in and you get a letter back from Mr. Smith asking a few questions about your application. It's a typical bureaucratic thing- never just take an application and fill it. Then you answer Mr. Smith, sending him the information he looks for, and you get a letter back from Mr. Jones. And you write Mr. Jones answering his letter, and you get a letter back from Mr. Adams. After six months I had a pile of correspondence. I had not one allocation, and I had letters in every instance from a different guy, and so on, infinitum. Never a letter back from the guy who wrote me originally. So it was obvious they were passing paper around and doing what government agencies do.

Then I decided, the heck with it, I'm going to go the other route, because the contracts were about to terminate. They couldn't hold those prices forever, and they couldn't start building without materials, and they couldn't have the materials without the cards. You had a special allocation card you had to send in. So I went down to Washington, again, a young, green priest, and I walked into Bill Harrison's office and I said, "Is the General around?" And they said, "No, he's at a meeting." I said, "Well, just for the heck of it," because he was on one of our Advisory Councils and he and I were pretty good buddies, I said, "just for the heck of it, take my card in." And she said, "Well, I can't do it right now. It's a confidential meeting. But I'll take it in shortly." I said, "If you don't, you're going to be in some trouble, sister. I'm just giving you the word." But they hear that all the time. I started to walk down the hall, and suddenly a door opened, and out comes Bill Harrison. "Hey, Father Ted! What are you doing here?" I said, "Bill, it's a sad story. But if you give me five minutes, I think I can tell you." "Sure, come on in the office."

So I went in the office, and I said, "Here's what I've been trying to do to operate the normal way. I've put in the application as you request-the agency requests. I get a letter from Jones, I answer Jones; get a letter from Smith, I answer Smith; get a letter from Adams, I answer Adams." And I said, "I'm at the end of my rope. I've got five buildings ready to go, and I can't get the allocation. And without the allocation, I'm going to lose the bids, and all the prices have gone up. Well, you can draw the picture." He said, "My God, is that what's happening around this place?" He pushed the buzzer, and the gal comes in and he says, "Get Smith in here quick." In about two minutes in comes Smith. He said, "Smith, this is Father Ted Hesburgh, whom you've been giving the run around to." He said, "He's got five buildings and he needs five cards with all the allocations on them that he can send in to the shippers clearing these materials. And I don't want him to wait all day around here to get that done. Now get on with it. Father Ted, when it's over, report back to me."

Smith takes me to his office apologizing all the way. He gets in his office, pushes the buzzer, and says, "Get Jones in here." Jones comes in, and he says, "Jones, this is the guy you've been giving the run around to." He said, "We've had enough of that. I want those allocations today, as a matter of fact this hour. I want them quick and let's quit horsing around. I want a report back from the Father how he's taken care of. So I walk out the door with Jones. Then we go to Jones' office. He pushes the buzzer. "Get Adams in here quick." And we go through the same thing about six times. Finally I said, "Guys, I'm enjoying this performance, but who gets to write the cards?" The last guy said, "I guess I do." So I said, "Okay, sit down quickly and write on one card 16,000 tons of sheet steel for a water tower, 30,000 feet of copper tubing, and so many inches." And I just laid out what I needed, all the priority materials, and they put them on cards. Then this last guy said, "You know, technically this has got to back up the line and reviewed by all these other guys." I said, "I've been through that in the reverse order." I said, "I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going home tonight and put these cards in the mail to those people to get these materials aboard, because I have about five days to save my contracts

So I went and made one more call and went back up to Bill Harrison's office. I said, "Bill, everything is under control. I'm sending the cards in without going through all that monkey business again. If I get challenged I'll probably be in trouble, but I think with you as my friend, I probably won't go to jail. And it's all for a good cause. And I hope I'll never hear from this again." He said, "I hope so too, Father, but if you get in trouble give me a call." He said, "You should have called me earlier." So I learned that little lesson. I went back that night and I sent the cards in. And one of the contractors on the steel called me and said, "Who's approving these?" And I said, "I'm approving them with the aid and assistance of General Harrison." He said, "Yes sir." He must've been in the Army. We got all of the materials. No one ever challenged us again. The buildings were built, or the building wouldn't be there today, at least in that form and at that price without that having happened.



Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our mailing list

Be the first to know when new stories are added to our collection.

* indicates required

View previous campaigns.