Caption
Theodore M. Hesburgh as a child with sisters Mary and Betty, c. 1925.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

Growing Up
Catholic

Early Education

Father Hesburgh later described his upbringing as “a typical Catholic household of the period.” He and his siblings attended Catholic school, wore uniforms, and were educated by strict religious sisters. The family prayed at home, were encouraged in their spiritual life and never missed Sunday Mass. Father Hesburgh was an altar boy and grew up under a strict moral code. He later quipped, “We never lied, stole, or cheated—at least we never got away with any such sins.”

Ted was more of a reader than an athlete. He preferred to build model airplanes and dream of flying. At ten, Ted and his friend Eddie Naughton attended an air show in town with their fathers. Father Hesburgh later wrote, “The star attraction that day was a flier named Tex Perrin, and he was decked out like no one we had ever seen before: tight-fitting helmet, goggles, leather jacket, white scarf, flared cavalry pants, and high, laced boots. He was Lafayette Escadrille all the way. And we were impressed.” The boys got a chance to go up with the stunt pilot on the “creaky biplane with a wooden propeller.” He added, “The view was stunning—farms, woods, cars, people, downtown Syracuse, the neighborhoods, and, of course, Lake Onondaga, which is right next to the city. The ride could not have lasted more than fifteen or twenty minutes, but I was hooked for life.” In June that same year, Ted was in New York City for his cousin’s ordination at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue when a parade was held to greet Charles Lindbergh, who had just returned from his solo flight across the Atlantic.

Despite his early love for flying, Father Hesburgh always wanted to be a priest. When Ted was in eighth grade, four missionaries from the Congregation of Holy Cross visited Most Holy Rosary Church. One of the priests, Father Tom Duffy, “made a great impression upon me,” recalled Father Hesburgh. He encouraged young Ted to enter Holy Cross Seminary at Notre Dame. Though Father Hesburgh’s calling was certainly encouraged at home, it was not something forced on him, nor was it something his mother wanted to rush. She told Father Duffy, “No dice,” as Father Hesburgh later recalled. Father Duffy was concerned young Ted would lose his vocation. “She looked Duffy straight in the eye and said, ‘It can’t be much of a vocation if he’s going to lose it by living in a Christian family.’ Mother had spoken, and that was that.”

High School

Father Hesburgh’s high school experience was fairly typical. He took four years of English, Latin, and religion, and three years of history and French. He was a member of the high school literary guild, sang in the choir, and helped edit the school paper, The Rosarian, his senior year. In addition to his religious upbringing, he was very much formed by the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Most Holy Rosary. He later recalled,

I will never forget those devoted nuns who ran the school, taught us discipline, rapped our knuckles, and hammered the lessons into our heads—Sister Augusta, Sister Justitia, Sister Q., Sister Delphina, and Sister Mary Veronica. … all with master’s degrees, they received about $30 a month in return for teaching full-time, overseeing many of the extracurricular activities, and keeping the church clean. I wonder how many high schools today are providing an education that is any better than the one I received between 1930 and 1934.

Like his father, Father Hesburgh was a voracious reader. He was influenced by his love of flying and naturally gravitated toward similar subjects in his reading. In 1982 Father Hesburgh reflected, “I read all the stuff that normal kids read, like Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe. I was always interested in adventure, I was always interested in travel stories of various kinds.” Later in high school, he wrote for the school paper and encourage his schoolmates to challenge themselves in their reading choices, and consider books on travel, adventure, and religion.

Father Hesburgh later reflected in his autobiography:

Equally important as any of our academic studies were the sense of morals and the personal values we learned throughout the twelve years of our primary and secondary school education. In those days all schools, public and private, sought to instill in children a long list of homespun values which were taught philosophically, if needed, to avoid overtones of religion: It is better to be honest than dishonest, better to be kind than cruel, better to help than to hurt someone, better to be patriotic than not.

Outside of school, Ted was very busy. He held various jobs, including: a paper route, hauling ashes from furnaces, mowing lawns, and selling watercress and nuts he found in the woods. During his senior year, he worked forty hours a week at a local gas station. In the summer, he participated in Boy Scouts and attended summer camp. Father Hesburgh recalled later, “I always liked the outdoors, the camping, the fishing. And as I got a little older, rabbit and pheasant hunting were just normal things.” In the winter, he enjoyed tobogganing, skiing, and skating at Onondaga Park, and swimming at the local YMCA.

Father Hesburgh was not the rebellious type. His worst offense in high school was skipping school the first day of pheasant hunting his senior year. Father Hesburgh’s sister, Anne, would later recall for a special edition of The Observer that even though he was “no troublemaker,” he was “a character.”

Portrait of Theodore Hesburgh, c. 1930.
Source: University of Notre Dame Archives.

 

Although Father Hesburgh went to dances, parties, and dated, he could not let go of the idea of being a priest. He recalled,

[E]ven though I dated and partied as much as anyone in high school, I never wavered in my desire to be a priest. There were many nights when I’d roll in at 2 a.m. after having a good time and I’d just sit on my bed and say to myself, ‘This isn’t enough for me. There’s something more that I need out of life.’

In the spring of his senior year, Father Hesburgh played the role of Christ in a school production of Christ’s Passion. Two months later, he spoke at his commencement, thanking the sisters and reflecting on his time at Most Holy Rosary. “[W]e stand upon the threshold of the coming years while the bright future beckons. May it be a happy one—as happy as the years gone by!” And for Father Hesburgh, it was clear his future included the seminary. He and Father Duffy had stayed in touch throughout high school, and his senior year, he was given the choice of the seminary at Stonehill College in Massachusetts or the Holy Cross Seminary at the University of Notre Dame. He later recalled, “It took me about one third of a second to choose the dream of practically every Catholic schoolboy in the country.”

Leaving Home

Of the siblings, Father Hesburgh was closest to his sister Mary. They were nearest in age and would often study together. She was a talented artist and earned a degree in fine arts from Syracuse University. Betty, as Father Hesburgh later described, “was the liveliest of the three.” She inherited her mother’s voice and sang at New Rochelle College. Anne was a tomboy who “did not care much for school,” but she “had an incredible memory and could always beat the rest of us playing cards or in any game that involved remembering facts.” In the fall of 1933, when Ted was a senior in high school, he finally got the brother he had always prayed for. Though Ted left for seminary when Jim (Jimmy) was only nine months old, the two grew closer over the years. It was difficult for Ted to move so far from home. He would miss his tight-knit family, and was quite homesick in the beginning.

Fr. Tom Duffy

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about the first Holy Cross priest he met

Transcript

Father Tom Duffy was the first significant person I met from the Congregation of Holy Cross. I really met four people at that time. I say significant in the sense that significant for me in that we struck up a friendship and continued to write till the day he died. He was one of four Holy Cross missionaries. One I think was Pat Dolan, who had been or maybe was later Prefect of Discipline at Notre Dame. Another one was Father Tom Carney. One was Father Tom Duffy, of course, and I can't recall the fourth. I suppose it's in the records somewhere, and if I got three of them right they can probably find in the records who the fourth one was. In any event, I had always thought of being a priest, and when that group of four Holy Cross priests came to give a mission at Most Holy Rosary parish in Syracuse, I was at the time in the eighth grade, as I recall, and an altar boy. And one of the priests would amuse us with stories about their summer camp in upper Maryland, as I recall, Deep Creek Lake, and a whole lot of other things. And we found them, as youngsters, very attractive priests. They were certainly very genial and good at keeping us quiet behind the closed doors while the fire and brimstone rained in the main body of the church.

Father Tom Duffy was the kind of person who was a natural born recruiter. And I recall that he asked me if I wanted to be a priest, and I told him that I had always wanted to be a priest and that I did intend to be one. And he asked me where I wanted to be a priest. And I said, "I think I'd probably like to be a priest like you." Which I guess covered a lot of territory I didn't know very much about at that time and at that age. And so he said, "Why don't I write you occasionally and you write back and tell me if you still want to be a priest?" And I said “Fine.” He then talked to my mother, as I recall, and father. I don't remember whether he came to the house or not, but in any event, I remember he did talk to my mother and father and said he thought that I was a good candidate for the priesthood and therefore I should come to Notre Dame and enter Holy Cross Seminary, which was a high-school seminary. I recall my mother, who was never very reticent in her opinions, saying "No dice." And then Father Duffy gave her the usual recruiter’s ploy, “Well, if he comes here he will be strengthening his vocation, and if he doesn't come and goes to high school here, he may lose his vocation.” And my mother said, "It can't be much of a vocation if he's going to lose it living in a Christian family. So I don't buy that argument. He's not going." And, that was that. I've disagreed with my mother on a number of things but I certainly, in retrospect, and even then I agreed with her in that particular decision, because I did cherish the four years I had in high-school, and I learned a lot of things I'm sure I never would have learned at Holy Cross Seminary and probably vice versa.

Growing Up

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his childhood activities and friends

Transcript

Tell me something of your growing up outside the home—altar boy, life scout, model airplanes, your boyhood. Did your fascination with travel begin then?

Well, I'd have to say a lot of activity was around the school as it normally is. Curiously, the first prize I ever won in school was that I got the highest mark in the first Regent's exam. I was mainly interested in … humanistic subjects in school, to take that part of my life. I read a great many adventure stories. But I read many of those historical novels like Drums Along the Mohawk and stuff of that sort. I read all the stuff that normal kids read, like Treasure Island, of course, Robinson Crusoe. I was always interested in adventure, I was always interested in travel stories of various kinds. I even used to kid Lowell Thomas, who was a dear friend of mine, talking about reading The Black Pagoda, which was one of his early books on India, and wondering whether I should become a missionary and go to Bengal. When I joined Holy Cross later on I was old enough then to think about that option.

I did fairly well in school, and I think I was not all that interested in sciences. Although we did have a very good Sister Augustus, a very good chemistry professor. And I learned enough chemistry from her to find the first year at Notre Dame a breeze, although I had old Doc Hinton and his great big red book on chemistry. But I had such good chemistry at high school that I really walloped his course with one of the highest marks I got at Notre Dame.

Anyway, if I get into it pretty heavily, it’s mainly as a reaction to growing up with three sisters but wanted to be out with the guys. I was lucky in that we had two families near there, you know, in our neighborhood, one the Perkins, who were all boys, four boys in that family. And I probably spent more time at their house than I did at my own. Then next door to them were the Segersons, and they had twin boys a year younger than I, and another boy, Bob, older. We became lifelong friends. I also spent a lot of time at their house…. And Jack Connors lived down the street. He eventually became Secretary of Commerce of the United States, and I served with him on the Chase Board later on. He was in our high school, a couple years—he was in my sister's class—a year or two ahead of me. We had the usual seasonal sports. We played softball all summer behind the John T. Roberts School, which was a block down the street from my place, and we had an ongoing summer league. I was never very good at it and generally wound up either right field or second base … the last one picked on the pickup team. Winter I enjoyed most, because we all did a lot of ice skating, and there were a lot of hills around there, and tobogganing. We all had those wonderful Flexible Flyer sleds. And in the summer I would try to—the family would go up to Sol Creek Shore on Lake Ontario for a couple of weeks in a cottage, which was all we could afford. I liked it up there. It was marvelous. I can still smell the rotting fish, the alewives, along the shore. But that was part of the lure of the place. … To this day I sleep better when I can hear a rolling sea coming in at night.

Flying

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his love for flying

Transcript

But I was always interested in airplanes. And of course airplanes were beginning then. When I was quite young—this must be in the early 20s or middle 20s—I talked my dad into taking Eddie Naughton, who was another guy down the street, and my dad and his father were good friends. We talked them into taking us out to a place called Perth-Amboy, which was the airport near Syracuse. And there was a famous (again, famous, he was the only show in town) guy there named Tex Perrin, and he was typical of that period of barnstorming. He wore cavalry pants, leather jacket, the helmet with the goggles, the high-laced boots, which was a part of the Lafayette Escadrille, I guess, uniform. One day, we talked my dad, who had a terror of airplanes, into letting us go for a ride with Tex Perrin. Eddie Naughton and I climbed, I remember, into the front seat of a bi-plane with a wooden propeller. It was probably an old D-H Liberty engine, and that was probably left over from World War I. We got in there and they strapped us in. And we were looking out over the side. I remember the cockpit was kind of lined with a leather padding around the edges of the cockpit, and he was looking out one side and I was looking out the other. We roared down and took off, flew over Onondaga Lake, which is nestled up against Syracuse. We weren't up very long, I suppose 15- 20 minutes. I remember it cost $5.00. That was a lot of dough in those days, but I was hooked.

Most Holy Rosary School

Excerpt from Fr. Hesburgh’s Oral History Interviews
Fr. Hesburgh talks about his teachers and classes at Most Holy Rosary

Transcript

I had a Sr. Fridelen in grade school. We all developed a great affection for her, and as I say, I kept in touch with her until she was about 90 years old. Sr. Mary Veronica I still hear from. I wrote her a couple weeks ago. She always writes me, "Dear Fr. Theodore." She's the only one in the world who calls me Theodore, and she was marvelous on Shakespeare. We had great big literature books when I was in high school, big fat books about 2 or 3 inches thick with all of the great literature: Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, lot of Silas Marner and all the things you read in high school. These were anthologies. We went through great big whopping anthologies every year, and she taught most of them. And I really felt, until I got Sr. Augustus in the fourth year, I never really felt at home with Caesar's Gallic Wars in the second year or with Cicero in the third year.

But Sister Augustus, who also is still living and I hear from, was a marvelous woman. She was the classiest nun in the whole convent, as far as I'm concerned. And she taught Virgil, and she was just an excellent, excellent teacher. She also taught chemistry where she was excellent. She was just a good teacher at everything she touched. And again, my first year at Notre Dame when we went through the Sixth Book of Virgil as part of the 5th year of Latin I was having, it was really a breeze because of what I had had from Sister Augustus. When you stop to think of it, going back on how long ago that was, '30 to '34, and how education is supposed to progress, I wonder if you could put together in a normal high school today, granted this was a parochial high school run entirely by these nuns who were making $30 a month, which is what they paid them. It had to cover their food, they had a convent they lived in. It had to cover their education too, because they all had to get master's degrees within ten years of teaching—starting to teach. And they were a terribly dedicated group that had to clean the church and their own convent, of course, on the side. Their habits were worn so long they were like mirrors—the shine of the blue serge. The whole family had those women from grade one through twelve.

And then, when I think of what we had in the way of subjects. We had, for starters, four years of English, excellently well done. When I came out of that school I could write as well as anybody I’ve run into the rest of my life practically, in college or graduate school and everywhere else. We really did a lot of writing, and we really worked at it. And I really got to a point where I really enjoyed writing something well, and I knew if I did. I mean we had a sense of discrimination of what was good writing and bad writing. There was only one mistake: as I mentioned, I was given to reading dictionaries and I began to develop a vocabulary which was entirely too artificial, because it was too precise. Some of the words were too polysyllabic. But I got cured of that by Leo Ward later on at Notre Dame. Then four years of English, four years of religion. And believe me we really covered the waterfront in our four years of religion: we actually had a Regents Exam in religion, which the state allowed the church to make up. But we never saw the exam. It was the same as all the others: they'd come in the classroom, slit open the exam and pass it out. But it came in sealed envelopes from Albany like all the others. Then we had four years of Latin, three years of French. We had two years of math, algebra and geometry, but by having another year of French I had to pass up intermediate algebra and trigonometry, which I gladly passed up. We had, as I mentioned earlier, one year of Art, which was optional. Those were pre-social science days, but we did have a couple of years of physics. We, what else? Oh, we had chemistry and we also had physics. I skipped physics, again, because I was going heavy in Latin and French. And I suspect I felt more at home with that kind of language and words and things than I did with science, although that caught up with me later. … We had three years of history and that was about it.

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