Fr. Ted: Hijacked by the Starship Enterprise

His death was overshadowed by that of Mr. Spock, but Father Theodore Hesburgh, the iconic ex-president of Notre Dame who died Feb. 26, just before Leonard Nimoy, deserves a larger place in the history books than the pointy-eared first officer of the Starship Enterprise.

But you wouldn't know it, judging from the way their deaths were covered by the major news media.

Nimoy's demise at the age of 83 was the subject of extensive page one articles in The New York Times and the Washington Post, -- along with lengthy sidebars -- and similar treatment by the TV networks, while Hesburgh, who was 97, rated only a footnote in the front pages of the Times and Post.

Granted, Nimoy helped make TV history during the three seasons that Star Trek ran before it was cancelled in 1968 due to poor ratings. The TV program and subsequent movies and followups made the half-alien a cult figure and folk hero. But the worshipful coverage of his life and death, especially by the Post, implies that our entertainment world is more important than our civic one.

Certainly, Hesburgh, in the 35 years that he made Notre Dame a powerhouse in Catholic higher education just as it was in football before retiring in 1986, deserved better treatment than he got from the media. While the Times, Post and most newspapers carried lengthy obituaries, their placement spoke volumes about the relative importance of an educator and an actor.

As Hesburgh's obituaries noted, President Eisenhower and a half-dozen other presidents appointed him to 16 presidential commissions and he served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 and the nation's highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal, in 1999.

When he retired in 1986, Hesburgh was considered the most influential priest in America and the nation's most effective college president. He was also an extremely effective fundraiser who helped Notre Dame achieve its present $9 billion endowment, one of the nation's largest.

But, as the Times obit pointed out, Hesburgh "was never awed by the power of the Oval Office. He tangled with the Nixon administration over busing, civil rights, and other issues, skirmishes that led to his resignation as chairman of the Civil Rights commission."

He also stood up to the Vatican, resisting attempts to gain greater control of Catholic higher education in the U.S. and handing over control of Notre Dame from his Holy Cross order to a mostly secular governing board. And, in a statement that bears repeating, he said in 1991 after heading a special commission that recommended college presidents take greater control of athletic programs, "We would love to put the sleaziness of college athletics to rest with this report."

I was fortunate to know Hesburgh, whom I first met in 1979 during Pope John Paul's visit to Washington in 1979, when I was working for Vice President Mondale. Hesburgh was especially close to President Carter. (I am Catholic but not a Notre Dame grad.)

In 2007, I stopped in South Bend on my way back from a teaching stint at the University of Oklahoma, and visited Hesburgh, who was ensconced in an office on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library. Then 90 years old, he took me to lunch and smoked one of the Cuban cigars I had brought him.

I brought up Hesburgh's reference to President Reagan when he portrayed Notre Dame halfback George Gipp in the movie about Knute Rockne. I recalled that when Reagan gave the Notre Dame commencement speech in 1981 - his first appearance after surviving an assassination attempt -- Hesburgh said he hoped the nation now would "Win one for the Gipper."

I like to think that all Americans, even Trekkies, will now say, "Win one for Father Ted."

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