‘The man was far ahead of his time’


In 1955, I accepted a four-year basketball scholarship to Notre Dame. Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh was then in his fourth year as president of the University. I chose Notre Dame from the numerous scholarship offers I had because of the tremendous sense of belonging I felt when I first set foot on campus. The majesty of it all was overwhelming. It didn’t matter one bit that our nation was beset with racial conflict and that segregation was basically still the law of the land, nor was I overly concerned at becoming one of 10 blacks in the entire University. I had attended an early integrated Parker High School in Chicago and served as a student racial ambassador there. Fr. Ted confirmed my decision by making my day on the morning of freshman check-in at Cavanaugh Hall, where he greeted my family with open arms and told my mother that he expected great things from me as a student, an athlete and a developing Notre Dame man. I was inspired beyond belief, but the inspiration didn’t stop there.

Fr. Hesburgh announced to the world that anywhere Notre Dame’s minority students weren’t welcome, neither was Notre Dame. The man was far ahead of his time. As has been expressed in the vernacular, he “talked the talk and walked the walk,” he was a champion of civil rights. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a national leader on the Human Rights Commission and was a major contributor to our country’s first civil rights legislation, all while guiding the growth, development and fortunes of Notre Dame. I have traveled the world and have interacted with some pretty important people, but Fr. Hesburgh remains the most productive and inspirational person I’ve ever known.

Tommy Hawkins with Fr. Hesburgh.

My favorite photograph is not of me slamming home a high-flying dunk, but of Fr. Hesburgh presenting to me my Bachelor’s degree in 1959. Through the years, I have frequently visited the campus and always made a point of getting together with Fr. Ted. We have always enjoyed a strong relationship. My last visit was with my family on Jan. 16 of this year, the day before my induction into the Notre Dame Ring of Honor. Fr. Ted regaled us with stories of the past and individually blessed us all.

My all-time favorite memory of huddling with Father was three years ago when I presented to him the free-verse narrative I wrote about him in my book, "Life's Reflections, Poetry for the People." It is entitled, "The House of Hesburgh." I read it to him as he quietly listened. The narrative is reprinted below:

"The House of Hesburgh"

A Salute to Father Theodore M. Hesburgh

President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame

"Welcome to the House of Hesburgh — it has no walls and yet it is a fortress of humanity, intelligence and dignity. It is a bastion of religiosity, with windows open to the world. It is a place that you can go to restore your faith, talk and listen to your soul, chart your life’s course and fortify yourself for the road ahead.

This home is filled with the love of God and our sacred Mother. It is a storehouse of forthright conviction, understanding and sage advice, honed by years of education, fervent prayer and effective living.

It is well decorated with mementos of an eclectic past. It features an endless array of both national and international awards and photographs documenting a life of historic accomplishments. It is a place where the echoes of the past miraculously blend with the hope of the future.

This wonderful homestead is landscaped with the beautiful flowers of spring, the green leaves of summer, the radiant change of colors of the fall and tinged with the blustery winds and swirling snows of winter. It is in every respect a place that stirs your being and inspires the spirit within you.

As you leave please go in peace, and upon departing, know that you have experienced the wonders of God through one of the most powerful and enlightened vicars of our time. Rest assured you will never forget that you have visited the House of Hesburgh."

When I finished, Father shed a tear and said to me, “Darn you Tom Hawkins, I don’t cry,” to which I replied, “Why should I sit here and cry alone?” What a great man.

Tommy Hawkins

Class of 1959

Former NBA Player, Notre Dame Basketball Ring of Honor Inductee