To those that worked closely with The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., the news of "Father Ted's" passing Thursday morning at the age of 97 not only elicits sadness, but also the fond remembrance of one of the greatest mentors, advisors, leaders, colleagues, and men they've known.
Thousands of personal recollections will be shared among Notre Dame faculty, staff, alumni, fans, and citizens of the South Bend community and beyond over the days that follow. Those intimate stories are to be treasured as are Father Ted's countless contributions to our community as well as worldwide.
But in this rare instance, those aren't the only moments that define the man.
I passed along the University's official announcement regarding Father Ted's passing to several, but four responses today struck me as especially telling, and this quartet of disparate reminiscences encapsulated his impact on those that came into contact with him, no matter the brevity of the encounter.
They likewise offer a microcosm of his daily approach to life:
-- From my sister Mary, class of 1986: "If it wasn't for him, Christy (my wife, class of '98) and I would not have graduated from the greatest school in the country."
-- From my former roommate, Dennis Ciancio ('95 and '04): "I was on my way into the library to work on my dissertation. I stepped into the elevator to ride up to the 13th floor and Fr. Ted stepped in with me. We'd been introduced once before, but I was surprised that he remembered my name in this context. He asked how I was doing.
"I mentioned I was heading up to do some writing, but had recently returned from a job interview and had likewise been offered another position elsewhere. The two offers couldn't have been more different and I explained as such. We reached the top and walked out of the elevator and he, more or less, ushered me back to his office while he asked some questions about the two jobs. He asked me about my family, my career goals, etc. I had mentioned that I felt both were 'stepping stone' positions; both were in fairly far away.
"I felt too sheepish and silly to say, 'I'd like to end up back here, at home, at ND.' Instead I hedged and described wanting to end up at a place that valued research, teaching, and service equally.
"His advice: 'Go where you can do the most good; then come back and do it better here. When that time comes, I would be happy to help if I can.'"
-- From my brother Phil, a 1975 high school junior that worked in the summer and on Saturdays flipping burgers at "The Huddle" the now-defunct campus hangout inside the LaFortune Student Center in the heart of campus:
"The woman that worked the lunch counter had been there for more than a decade. So too the lady that ran the cashier. He stopped to talk to both of them each time he'd come in for coffee or a newspaper, but he also took the time to not only say a polite hello to me, but later ask me where I went to school, and thereafter, follow up with wondering HOW I was doing in school.
"It was the human factor. Genuinely wanting to say hello and taking the time to do so. That's what stood out."
It does to this day.
Through three fortunate degrees of separation (Father Hesburgh's former office receptionist is the grandmother of her friend), current Notre Dame senior Annie Mazza studied on more than one occasion as a freshman in Father Ted's office atop the library that bears his name.
Though meeting him in his private space would have been memorable enough, it was a quip offered by the University President Emeritus that sticks with Mazza today.
"I remember shaking his hand and he joked, 'I like a woman with a strong handshake.' I think it was that sense of humor that puts people at ease -- the memorable, funny anecdotes everyone seems to be able to share. Small interactions are where he made his impact."
WORDS TO LIVE BY, LIVED BY
My own meeting with Father Ted was singular (apparently I should have spent more time at his library during my college days), but not less relevant.
As a suddenly out-of-shape college senior (beer, torn-up ankle, and well…beer), I paused -- or perhaps to be honest, stopped -- on a labored jog around the Figure 8 trail formed by St. Mary's and St. Joseph's lakes on campus.
Upon re-starting, I noticed an unmistakable figure about 30 yards down the path. Father Ted was walking at the base of Holy Cross House -- now 20 years later, the site of his passing.
As I nodded and waved in acknowledgement jogging by him, he smiled and offered five words neither I, nor anyone else should forget.
"It's important to keep going."
It's clear he always did.