The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the strong-minded former president of the University of Notre Dame who stood up to both the White House and the Vatican as he transformed Catholic higher education in America and raised a powerful moral voice in national affairs, died late Thursday in South Bend, Ind. He was 97.
The university confirmed his death in a statement on its website, saying he had died just before midnight at Holy Cross House, which is next to the university.
As an adviser to presidents, special envoy to popes, theologian, author, educator and activist, Father Hesburgh was for decades considered the most influential priest in America. In 1986, when he retired after a record 35 years as president of Notre Dame, a survey of 485 university presidents named him the most effective college president in the country.
“In his historic service to the nation, the church and the world, he was a steadfast champion for human rights, the cause of peace and care for the poor,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said in a statement.
Father Hesburgh held more than a dozen White House appointments under six presidents. For years, he was chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights and of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.
Yet he 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 fought a White House plan to use federal troops to put down campus demonstrations and persuaded the president to drop the idea.
He was just as willing to stand up to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II called on him for help in a variety of ecumenical matters, yet he resisted the church’s attempts to assert greater control over Catholic universities in the United States.
After the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s, endorsed a larger role for lay Catholics in the Mass and other aspects of the faith, Father Hesburgh handed over control of the university from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which had founded it in 1842, to a largely secular board.
Having a major Catholic university governed by laymen was not popular with the Vatican or with conservative Catholics. Some members of the Holy Cross order feared that Father Hesburgh had surrendered too much control. But he argued that by bringing in secular leaders with a wide range of skills, the university gained greater governing expertise and more financial flexibility.
Since then, nearly every major Catholic college has followed his lead and formed a lay board.
Father Hesburgh further inflamed his conservative critics by leading a group of Catholic educators to assert a degree of doctrinal independence from Rome. Meeting at the Holy Cross retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wis., in 1967, the group issued a landmark policy statement declaring that the pursuit of truth, not religious indoctrination, was the ultimate goal of Catholic higher learning in the United States. That position had implications for what could be taught at the universities and who could be hired to teach, issues that remain contentious.
Father Hesburgh received 150 honorary degrees from other colleges and universities. He was the only Catholic priest ever elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, and served as the governing board’s president from 1994 to 1996.
Father Hesburgh understood the special role football played in Notre Dame’s reputation. But he was not a huge football fan, and he resented the influence that collegiate sports had on higher education. At his inauguration as president in 1952, he was appalled when local newspapers sent sportswriters to cover the event, and he refused to cooperate with photographers who asked him to pose with a football.
“I’m not the football coach,” he barked at the surprised journalists. “I’m the president.”
Yet he was not averse to calling attention to Notre Dame’s football legends. When President Ronald Reagan gave the commencement address at the university in 1981 and received an honorary degree, Father Hesburgh referred in his remarks to Mr. Reagan’s role as the Fighting Irish halfback George Gipp in the film “Knute Rockne — All American.” The dying words of Mr. Reagan’s character, “Win one for the Gipper,” had by then become Reagan iconography.
“We welcome the president of the United States back to health,” Father Hesburgh told cheering students on the day of the visit, Mr. Reagan’s first major appearance outside Washington after the assassination attempt against him. “We welcome the president of the United States back into the body of his people, the Americans, and lastly, here at Notre Dame, here in a very special way, we welcome the Gipper at long last back to get his degree.”
Mr. Reagan graduated from Eureka College in 1932.
Theodore Martin Hesburgh was born in Syracuse on May 25, 1917, one of five children of Theodore Bernard Hesburgh and the former Anne Murphy. His father was an executive at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company.
Reared in a religious home, Father Hesburgh had wanted to be a priest from age 6. When he was in the eighth grade, four Holy Cross missionaries came to preach at his parish church and captivated him with their talk of Notre Dame.
After graduating from high school, he entered the Holy Cross seminary on the Notre Dame campus and was later sent to Rome to study for advanced degrees in philosophy and theology. But with the outbreak of World War II, he was forced to return to the United States. He was ordained at Notre Dame in 1943, when he was 26.
After taking his vows, Father Hesburgh went to Catholic University to get a doctorate. His request to be assigned to an aircraft carrier as a chaplain was rejected. After he completed his doctorate, his superiors ordered him to Notre Dame to teach naval officers who were being sent there for wartime training. He also served as chaplain to returning veterans.
Father Hesburgh initially resisted going into administration at Notre Dame, preferring to stay in the classroom. But he was made vice president and assistant to the president, the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh. In 1952, at age 35, he took over as president.
At the time, Notre Dame was a small university regarded as strong in football and weak in just about everything else but theology. Father Hesburgh set out to build up the faculty, upgrade the academic standards and increase the size of the school, which admitted women for the first time in 1972. He became an effective fund-raiser, inheriting a $9 million endowment and increasing it to $350 million. Today, Notre Dame has one of the largest endowments in the nation, exceeding $9 billion.
Father Hesburgh served on 16 presidential commissions, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. His first appointment was in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him to the National Science Board. Mr. Eisenhower made him a charter member of the Commission on Civil Rights in 1957. He became its chairman in 1969.
Under his leadership the commission criticized President Richard M. Nixon for not directing his administration to enforce civil rights laws. During Mr. Nixon’s re-election campaign, in 1972, Father Hesburgh blasted the president’s opposition to school busing, calling it “the most phony issue in the country.” Mr. Nixon demanded his resignation a few weeks after the election.
Although he fiercely opposed the war in Vietnam, Father Hesburgh was praised by Vietnam-era hawks in 1969, when he took a tough stance on antiwar protests on campus. He threatened to expel student demonstrators who blocked access to university buildings.
President Nixon sent Father Hesburgh a telegram congratulating him for the assertive way in which he had defused tensions and asked him to help Vice President Spiro T. Agnew draw up legislation to handle campus turmoil across the nation. Father Hesburgh balked, saying he saw no legitimate role for the federal government to play on campus, and the idea was eventually dropped.
He became especially close to President Jimmy Carter, who shared many of his ideals about personal humility and service. In recognition of Father Hesburgh’s passion for flying, Mr. Carter made it possible for him to ride in the SR-71 Blackbird supersonic reconnaissance jet. Along with a trained Air Force pilot, Father Hesburgh, then 62, momentarily exceeded the speed record of Mach 3.35, more than 2,193 miles per hour. The speed was not maintained long enough to be considered an official record, but it allowed Father Hesburgh to realize his dream of experiencing supersonic flight.
He retired from Notre Dame in 1987. Soon after stepping down, he and the Rev. Edmund P. “Ned” Joyce, who was Notre Dame’s executive vice president under Father Hesburgh, took a year to travel across the country in a recreational vehicle. He wrote of their trip in the book “Travels With Ted and Ned.”
Returning to Notre Dame in retirement, Father Hesburgh took an office behind the book stacks on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh library, the building called “Touchdown Jesus” because of a mosaic of Christ with outstretched arms that rises over the stadium. There he devoted himself to developing plans for the creation of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which was founded with the support of the philanthropist Joan B. Kroc, wife of the McDonald’s Corporation founder, Ray Kroc, and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, which are both housed at Notre Dame.
With William C. Friday, the former president of the University of North Carolina, Father Hesburgh led a special commission on big-time intercollegiate sports in 1991. Critical of excesses at some universities, the panel’s report recommended that presidents take greater control of athletic programs. “We would love to put the sleaziness of college athletics to rest with this report,” Father Hesburgh said.
In 1994 he oversaw a fund to help President Bill Clinton pay for his legal defense related to the Whitewater land deal investigation.
Mr. Clinton was later authorized by Congress to award Father Hesburgh the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award. President Lyndon B. Johnson had awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
He is survived by his younger brother, James.
As his eyesight deteriorated with advancing macular degeneration, Father Hesburgh had to limit his travel and curtail his activities. But he attended every home game in Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season in 2012. And he continued to receive honors.
An especially meaningful one to him came in 2013, when the Navy made him an honorary chaplain, fulfilling in part his dream from 70 years earlier of serving as chaplain aboard an aircraft carrier.
“I hope I will continue to serve our Navy as well as our country in every way possible,” Father Hesburgh, just weeks short of turning 96, said during the ceremony at Notre Dame. “Anchors aweigh!”