A Passing of the Mantle in the Main Building

By James S. O'Rourke IV (’68)

“We are mere bystanders to history at this point,” said Father Charley. “I can’t influence the outcome, and neither of us can predict who will get the job.” He paused and then looked directly at me. “All I know is that we’ve always had the right man at the right moment. Our Blessed Mother has seen to it that we’ve had exactly the leadership we’ve needed. Beyond that,” he said, “I can’t tell you much.”

Father Charley, in this conversation, was the Rev. Charles E. Sheedy, C.S.C., former dean of the College of Arts & Letters, and longtime iconic figure in the Notre Dame Department of Theology. Our conversation took place in 1981, just after Father Hesburgh had told the University’s lay Board of Trustees that he’d had enough: after 28 years, he wanted to retire. “Not so fast,” said the Board. The consensus, it seems, was that no suitable successor had been properly identified and groomed for the job. “Hesburgh,” said Father Charley, “is like Marshall Tito. He’s outlived the system designed to provide a successor.”

Thus, the executive committee of the Trustees asked Father Hesburgh if he would stay on another five years. Time enough, they said, to properly prepare a successor. So, Fathers Bartel, Beauchamp, McCafferty, Malloy, and Tyson each rotated through a number of important and near-important jobs at Notre Dame to learn the ropes. And in 1987, Edward M. “Monk” Malloy was elected by the full Board of Trustees to become Notre Dame’s 17th president.

The other 16 comprise a distinguished list: the founder, Edward Sorin, his assistant Patrick Dillon, and the Civil War Chaplain William Corby. They preceded others whose names grace the entrances to our undergraduate halls: Walsh, Morrissey, and Cavanaugh. We’ve had two Walshes, actually: one Thomas and one Matthew. We’ve had two Cavanaughs, as well, both of them named John. The elder John Cavanaugh served from 1905 to 1919 and is remembered for having offered the Students’ Army Training Corps a place on campus so that undergraduates could serve in the Armed Forces and continue their education. The younger John Cavanaugh was vice president for sales and advertising at Studebaker Corporation before he joined the Congregation of Holy Cross and took his vows as a priest. “Remember, John,” said a predecessor, “you’re joining a religious order, not founding one.” The younger Cavanaugh had a charismatic knack for administration that served him well as he reorganized the University and created vice presidents for all departments. He also created an executive vice presidency to oversee all the others. His first EVP was Father Hesburgh.

“Ted came to the job in a somewhat unconventional manner,” said Father Charley. “I was in the Corby Hall refectory downstairs one day in 1952, when Ted beckoned to me. ‘Join us,’ he said. John Cavanaugh was sitting across from him.” Charley crossed his arms and looked up thoughtfully. “Toward the end of the meal, John said, ‘Ted, I’ve got to see some people in New York...I’ll be gone a few days.’ And then he leaned back, reached into his cassock pocket and took out a sizeable ring of keys. ‘You’ve got it,’ he said, and tossed the keys across the table to Ted. Hesburgh reached over, picked them up and said, ‘That’ll be fine, Father. Enjoy the trip.’”

When he returned from New York a week later, a perhaps apocryphal addendum observed the same trio as they sat down to dinner in Corby Hall. Father Hesburgh took the keys out of his pocket and put them on the table. “What are those?” Cavanaugh asked. “Those are your keys,” replied Hesburgh. “They are not,” retorted Cavanaugh. “When I said, ‘You’ve got it,’ I meant the job is yours. You’re the president.” “Ted looked at those keys,” said an observer, “and seemed reluctant to touch them again.” Those present that day say there was a brief but polite disagreement about who those keys—and the presidency—belonged to, but when lunch was over, Father Hesburgh left with them in his cassock and the responsibility of a job he’d never sought. “I’m a priest,” he would tell visitors. “It’s my vocation, my calling, and my purpose in life.” Not once did he think of himself as a president first, but always a priest, counselor, confessor, and spiritual advisor.

A somewhat more formal process brought Monk Malloy to the position of Notre Dame president, though it was not without controversy. Father Malloy, never comfortable speaking in public or with occasions that would call attention to himself, quickly grew into the role. He abandoned the note cards he thought he’d always need for banquet speeches.

He met regularly with students, parents, and members of the local community. And he welcomed visitors into his office—often without appointments or prior notice—until the day a fellow showed up with a loaded gun. It’s not as easy to get in there now, but Monk is no less accessible, as a priest, advisor, and president.

Throughout his presidency, he maintained the quaint tradition of meeting personally with every new faculty member, asking them about their backgrounds, their goals, and their intellectual interests. When one new appointee from the College of Business asked him what he might be willing to share about the strategic direction of the University, he replied, “Well, I can tell you this. Every building that will be built during my administration has either been finished or is now under construction.” That conversation took place in 1990. Although he was off by more than two dozen buildings, he was clearly on the mark about virtually everything else.

Malloy’s presidency has been marked by substantial growth in the University: in our physical plant, in our endowment, in our enrollment. Growth has been substantial in other ways, as well: in graduate scholarships, in student aid, in faculty appointments, and certainly in our ambitions. Andrew Morrissey, who was president from 1893 to 1905, declared, “What we need here is a compact, tidy little boarding school.” It was his predecessor Sorin, though, who proclaimed in 1879 after walking through the smoldering ruins of the second Main Building, “I came here as a young man and founded a university which I named after the Mother of God. Now she had to burn it to the ground to show me I dreamed too small a dream. Tomorrow we will build it bigger and, when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.”

Sorin had to wait a couple of years for his dome, but eventually he got that and more. It would be interesting, of course, to walk around the campus today with Father Sorin (assuming he were still alive), watching his reaction to the changes that have come our way in the 126 years since he gave that speech in Sacred Heart Church. He’d no doubt be astonished (perhaps gratified) at the presence of women. He’d be flabbergasted at the size and scope of the buildings. He’d be perplexed at the clothing, golf carts, iPods, teaching technology, abundance of food, and the pace of life. He’d be agape at the automobiles (and paucity of parking) on campus. And, he probably wouldn’t know what to make of such things as vending machines, cell phones, or PowerPoint.

He would be pleased, though, if we were to walk past the Grotto on a warm evening. Or step into his beloved Basilica at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday for the Hallmark Mass. Or, perhaps, pay a visit to the residence halls late in the evenings when students are studying, calling home, or preparing for a late Mass in the chapels. He’d be proud of what this place has become: we are now, quite simply, the preeminent Catholic university in the world. Despite Father Morrissey’s somewhat limited strategic vision, we have grown under the guidance and leadership of those 17 men into an astounding hub of intellectual achievement, research productivity, and social advancement—all the while, never losing sight of our primary mission: to educate young people in the Catholic tradition, preparing them for lives of achievement and service to others.

Edward Sorin didn’t give that speech in 1879 as an impromptu exercise in rhetoric. He wrote it on the train on his way from Montreal to South Bend. John Jenkins, C.S.C., the 18th in that line of Holy Cross priests chosen to lead Notre Dame, has had a bit longer to think about what he will say when he’s inaugurated in September, and he will have considerably more resources and greater levels of talent to draw upon as he navigates his way through the 21st Century. He’ll doubtless face more complicated problems, more difficult issues, and do so in a more visible world of ‘round-the-clock news coverage and Internet critics. He’s got a few things going for him, though, as he faces that uncertain future: the support of an astonishingly loyal alumni, a dedicated faculty, and the Lady on the Dome.

“We’ve always had the right man at the right moment,” said Father Charley. “And, even if he didn’t ask for the job, he’ll grow into it. Our Blessed Lady will see to that.”

—James S. O'Rourke IV (’68) is Concurrent Professor of Management and Director, Eugene D. Fanning Center for Business Communication.


Copyright © 2005 University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved Last Updated on: May 27, 2005