Of Hesburgh, Sorin, Rockne, Place, and Purpose

A raw, biting wind swept across the Notre Dame campus last Wednesday afternoon, as folks gathered outside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Large speakers played the sounds of the proceedings inside, the funeral for President Emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.

“And I will raise you up…on the last day,” the refrain echoed across campus.

Father Theodore Hesburgh

Father Theodore Hesburgh

In a matter of minutes, an amazing sight unfolded. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Notre Dame students began pouring out of their residence halls, to line the procession route along St. Mary’s Drive, from the Basilica to the Holy Cross cemetery, where Father Ted would be laid to rest among his fellow religious, marked by the same simple cross.

The long lines soon formed and filled both sides of the entire route, with students mostly awaiting the procession in silence. As the minutes went by, some jumped in place to ward off the cold. Finally, all stood respectfully as the cortege passed.

The vast majority of those invited guests attending the funeral braved the cold to walk to the cemetery. One could spot many familiar faces. There goes Father Jenkins. Coach Holtz. Coach Faust. Muffet McGraw. Alumni head Dolly Duffy. Senator Joe Donnelly.

And after they had all passed by, the students simply turned and began the march back to their dorms. Like paying their respects in the visitation lines the previous day and night, or saying a prayer at the Grotto, they had participated in another part of this historic memorial.

It was then the irony struck: the final journey for Father Ted was one of a just a few hundred yards. When so much of his life had been traveling far and wide, promoting human rights and social justice across America and the world.

Many remembrances of Father Ted included the joke that was common in his later years as ND president: “What’s the different between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere, and Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.”

Father Edward Sorin

Father Edward Sorin

In that way, Father Ted resembled two other seminal Notre Dame figures: founder Rev. Edward Sorin, and Knute Rockne. If there were ever three men on the go, it was Sorin, Rockne, and Hesburgh.

Sorin would make the arduous journey back to Montreal (and occasionally even to Paris) to continually advocate for Notre Dame, and raise funds for her expansion. Rockne became legendary by leading the Fighting Irish – first as captain of the 1913 squad, then as coach – to play in far-flung locations, his teams getting the nickname “Rockne’s Ramblers.”

But beyond football season, Rockne was always on the move, speaking to a variety of audiences, primarily on the benefits of healthy athletic competition, and teaching his “Notre Dame system” to eager coaches at gatherings from coast to coast. He created a common language of sportsmanship and benefit from athletics that is almost taken for granted today.

Coach Knute Rockne

Coach Knute Rockne

The thread is unmistakable. All three men, in different eras and in different ways, helped make Notre Dame what it is today. And that meant travel, a lot of it.

While the campus of Notre Dame is indeed a special, blessed place, its spirit and mission cannot be confined to 1,200 acres in northern Indiana. The connection is to the larger world; the mission to serve and lead wherever there is a need. Close you eyes and think of your favorite installment of the “What would you fight for?” series of stories.

I was privileged to meet with Father Ted during the research phase for my two books, Loyal Sons and Coach For A Nation. His simple encouragement was, “Do good work.”

His lesson to all of us would add: “Wherever that takes you.”