New Doc ‘Hesburgh’ Offers Searing Look at a Great American Leader

Father Ted Battled for Civil Rights, Built Notre Dame, Advised Presidents (and Was a Decent Human Being)

Father Theodore Hesburgh led Notre Dame from 1952–1987 and counseled some of the most significant world figures during that era.

Placing Father Theodore Hesburgh among America’s all-time greatest educators – Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, Martin Luther King – is not a stretch. A trusted advisor to five presidents, the world record holder in honorary degrees and the leader and conscience of the commission that did more to advance the cause of civil rights in this country more than any single individual, it is a mystery why Father Ted is not a household name.

As the new documentary ‘Hesburgh’ reveals, it’s certainly not for lack of charisma. The movie-star-handsome, ludicrously well-educated priest led the University of Notre Dame for 35 years, transforming it from a Knute Rockne associated football powerhouse to a world-class university known as much for its leadership on social issues and academic prizes as its football team (which happens to still be pretty damn good).

HESBURGH ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Patrick Creadon
Written by: William Neal, Nick Andert and Jerry Barca
Produced by: Christine O’Malley and Jerry Barca
Running time: 104 min.

The creators of this film know this turf, literally. Director Patrick Creadon, whose previous feature-length doc Wordplay covered New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, is a 1989 Notre Dame graduate. Producer-Writer Jerry Barca also attended Notre Dame and along with co-producer Christine O’Malley (who is married to Creadon), he produced one of the classic 30 for 30’s for ESPN Films, 2016’s “Catholics vs. Convicts” (also directed by Creadon), which covered the infamous 1988 football game between No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 1 Miami.

But this documentary is about so much more than a college. It’s about an era in America, a certain kind of “great man” view of history that allows one truly special individual to make a tremendous difference not only in the lives of all he touched but in the larger culture.

Amid some of the heartbreaking lows of the nation’s racial strife, President Eisenhower appointed Hesburgh —who is already busy running growing a major university— to lead the Civil Rights Commission. Father Ted refuses to participate in a commission that simply issues a report that gets put on a shelf. He leads investigations into the stubborn persistence of segregation and unfair treatment of blacks not just in voting but in housing and schooling throughout the South and beyond.

The film does a masterful job of portraying this complex era, showing how both Republicans and Democrats were reluctant to act on the commission’s recommendations lest it costs them the entire South. Bobby Kennedy comes off particularly craven in his refusal to implement the commission’s findings for fear that it would hurt his brother’s chances in the 1964 election. That election, of course, tragically did not feature John F. Kennedy.

Instead, Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide, and used that mandate—plus some unbelievable blackmail courtesy of J. Edgar Hoover—to whip reluctant legislators into supporting the changes he rammed through Congress. But just when you think justice has triumphed, along comes Richard Nixon. A close friend and confidant of Hesburgh, Nixon soon experiences his own politically driven reluctance to do the right thing. He begins to undo or at least fail to enforce many of the commission’s recommendations. Some of the film’s most compelling moments feature unearthed audio of President Nixon and his henchman John Ehrlichman in the Oval Office discussing what a pain in the ass this priest from South Bend was giving them.

Another sign of the crazy times this priest navigated his university through occurs at the peak of the Vietnam war.

Notre Dame grad Jerry Barca, seen here at a screening of ‘Hesburgh’ at Notre Dame on Nov. 11, 2018, produced and wrote the new documentary. (Ken Kurson)

Robert Sam Anson was the editor in chief of Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer. He gave Hesburgh a hard time as befits any student newspaper editor, but the two men grew close, with Anson, who grew up without a father, crediting Father Ted for playing that role. While still a student at the University of Notre Dame, Anson became a reporter for Time magazine. While on assignment in Cambodia in 1970, he was captured by the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and taken prisoner of war.

A Time-Life Executive showed up in South Bend and asked Hesburgh if there was anything that could be done. Moments later, Hesburgh was heard on the phone uttering the words “Your Holiness, I need a favor.” Pope Paul VI intervened — Hesburgh was personal friends with all popes of the last 60 years of his life—and somehow Anson‘s life was spared. Anson’s description of the ordeal, and the love he retains for Father Ted even as he criticized the priest for moving too slowly on campus activism, shows the nuance and layers this documentary brings to its complex subject matter.

By the time the film enters the 80s, it loses some energy. Hesburgh, born in 1917, had also lost a step by then, and the history lessons don’t measure up to the madness of the 60s and 70s. The film also could have used about 80% less information on Ann Landers, a strange and boring detour from the main story. Hesburgh’s intense friendship with the dominant advice columnist of her day is detailed in granular fashion. While it’s somewhat novel, it just can’t compete with anecdotes about locking arms with Dr. Martin Luther King or being bashed on audiotape by Richard Nixon. When Landers’ daughter raises the odd macguffin of a Mary Magdalene situation emerging between the chaste priest and his Jewish correspondent, one could feel the audience’s eyes rolling and praying the film would get back on track.

Luckily, it does. By the time Barack Obama is elected and comes to campus amid tremendous protest over abortion, Hesburgh is long retired. But his giants shadow still looms over the Golden Dome. His successors, Fathers Edward “Monk” Malloy and John Jenkins revere him and it’s just plain lovely to see what they’ve built and the way these guys are true Brothers, as they call each other, and root for each other’s success.

Hesburgh is currently doing the festival circuit and looking for theatrical distribution. One person at a Q&A with producer and writer Barca mentioned the propitious timing since the Mr. Rogers documentary ‘ Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ had a similar uplifting spirit and performed well enough at the box office.

Hesburgh really isn’t just a Notre Dame story or even a Catholic story. It’s an American story, about an American life lived as well as can be. When Father Ted uttered the famous school motto, “God, country, Notre Dame,” you just believe he meant it, and that he meant it in that order.

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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