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'Father Ted' Remembered As Influential Figure In Catholic Education

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Reverend Theodore Hesburgh was one of the most influential figures in Catholic higher education. He died yesterday. He was 97. Hesburgh was the longtime president of Notre Dame University. He's credited with transforming it from a small school known primarily for its football, into an academic powerhouse. NPR's Jackie Northam has this remembrance.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For those who knew him, Reverend Hesburgh was simply Father Ted. But make no mistake, he was a highly influential priest who moved amongst presidents and popes. During his 35 years as president of Notre Dame, he reinforced the importance of a college education and that it should be affordable and accessible to all. David Warren is the president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

DAVID WARREN: He understood that higher education was at the pivot point in American life. It was the place that both provided individuals with the opportunity to climb a ladder of opportunity and be successful.

NORTHAM: Hesburgh was born in Syracuse, N.Y. in 1917 and took his vows when he was 26 years old. Although he wanted to serve as a chaplain on an aircraft carrier during the Second World War, he was assigned to Notre Dame to help train naval officers. He stayed and eventually became president of the University in 1952. During his tenure, Hesburgh became a champion of nuclear disarmament and civil rights. He clashed with President Richard Nixon over enforcing the nation's civil rights laws and was ultimately forced off the civil rights commission in 1972. Reverend John Jenkins, the current president of Notre Dame, says Hesburgh was driven by a moral vision.

REVEREND JOHN JENKINS: It's important to remember, this is the '60s. It was not universally acclaimed for a Catholic priest to be advocating for civil rights for African-Americans. It was the middle of the Cold War. It was not universally accepted to argue for nuclear disarmament. He was a courageous leader for his time and, for that reason, a highly influential one.

NORTHAM: But Hesburgh also ruffled the feathers of the Catholic Church, pushing back when the church wanted to impose more control over its universities, making religion more important than education, says Warren.

WARREN: He was not rejecting Catholicism. He was saying faith and reason can be side-by-side. That's part of what a first-rate education and life are all about - holding those two together.

NORTHAM: Hesburgh was bestowed with many honors in his time, including the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000. Jackie Northam, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to the University of Notre Dame as Notre Dame University.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.