Early one morning in the winter of 1982, two 20-year-old college students walked across the University of Notre Dame campus in a good mood after an evening at the bars. As the two passed the Main Building, a light in a third-floor office glowed brightly. The university president, a notorious night owl, was working late.
One friend told the other it would be a shame if they graduated without ever meeting the university’s famous president. It seemed like a now-or-never moment. And so he climbed up the fire escape to the third floor and knocked on the window.
A shadowy figure approached the frosted glass, and said the window was painted shut. Would the visitors mind meeting him downstairs at the front door? Moments later,
there stood a silver-haired gentleman in a black suit and Roman collar. It was Father Ted Hesburgh. The courtly priest regaled his visitors with a tale of his recent return from El Salvador, where he had served as an observer of that country’s first-ever democratic elections.
He asked the students about themselves. After a few minutes, Hesburgh excused himself, saying he had more work to do before turning in. The students stumbled home to their dorms, feeling thrilled and pleased with themselves.
Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame, died last week at the age of 97. Many in San Diego may have never heard of him, or shrugged at the news of his passing. But a few minutes studying Father Ted's life of service are well-spent. This is even truer for business leaders, real estate professionals and lawyers than it is solely for Catholics and educators.
Using business to do good
It seems hard to imagine that a Holy Cross priest who lived in northern Indiana in a spartan, 10-by-12-foot room, slept on an iron cot, and didn't have a bank account of his own, served for years on the board of directors of Chase Manhattan Bank.
A novice in finance and economics when he began serving on Chase's board, he educated himself. Ultimately, bank officials and fellow board members came to rely on him for incisive advice. He found bankers surprisingly open to his suggestions about ethics and morality in banking.
At one Chase meeting, the discussion focused on jettisoning unprofitable businesses, enhancing profitable ones and maximizing business opportunities. Hesburgh remarked that the Mafia operated on the same model. Hesburgh thought the bank should be interested in social responsibility and responsible citizenship, both here and overseas. And he helped this to happen.
During Hesburgh's tenure with Chase, the bank attained 36 percent minority employment — high for a bank in that era — and became involved in mostly unprofitable development funds in Third World countries.
I wonder how many of the plutocrats whose greed and dumbness contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 might have behaved differently if they had had board members like Hesburgh — people who would have reminded them that doing the right thing, especially when it costs money, is at least as important as earning a profit.
Through its school of business, Notre Dame awards an annual prize, the Hesburgh Award for Business Ethics. Its recipients include Amy Domini, the founder and CEO of Domini Social Investments manages more than $1.8 billion in assets for investors seeking to create positive change in society by integrating social and environmental criteria into their investment decisions.
Domini's flagship fund, the Domini Social Equity Fund, reflects the real-world application of values that Hesburgh embraced and lived. In the face of income equality and the other injustices in our economy, many of us turn away -- we're too busy, or too numb. Hesburgh insisted that we not turn away. He assaulted those injustices and wanted the business community to do the same. His method was not pious preaching or radical protest. Instead, it was smart, practical and ethical action that accomplishes more than preaching or protest could.
Not going along to get along
For more than 15 years, Hesburgh served four presidents as a member and chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. No one attains such a position without charm and political skills, and Hesburgh certainly had those.
In 1972, however, he found himself at odds with President Richard Nixon, whose administration he had publicly criticized for weak civil rights efforts. Through an aide, the recently re-elected Nixon made it known that he expected Hesburgh to clean out his office by 6 that night.
Hesburgh later said of the Nixon White House: "They bent over backwards to help the milk industry, ITT, Vesco . . . but if you happened to be poor or black they'd say, 'What can [you] do for us?'"
The Nixon White House famously persecuted its actual and perceived enemies. Indeed, a top-secret list at the White House bore those enemies' names. If he worried about that privately, Hesburgh never displayed concern. He had no fear of Nixon or anyone else. If his views cost him an important and prestigious appointment, or pissed off the president of the United States, to him that was just the price of doing the right thing.
Today, the mass of our leaders, from mayors to presidents, seem gutless. They're too beholden to their sponsors. I wonder what achievements our public officials might realize if only they used the sort of ethical compass which Hesburgh used to steer his career — in some cases, at cost to themselves.
A servant's heart
For all his globetrotting, many awards and 16 presidential appointments, Hesburgh viewed himself as a humble servant. As a Holy Cross priest, he took a vow to live "a simple life." He lived this vow. Each year, the priests and brothers at Notre Dame would post their annual budgets — the amounts of money each man expected to spend that year. The postings were public, but anonymous. The priest who always had the lowest number was Hesburgh.
Today, the stock of Catholic priests trades for little in our society. This is thanks, in large part, to the massive moral disgrace of the clergy sex-abuse crisis. But it is also thanks to archconservative bishops such as Salvatore Cordileone and Raymond Burke, whose seeming obsessions with same-sex marriage and abortion at the expense of more worthy issues turn many people off. People are right to be turned off.
If only there were a thousand more like Hesburgh. He had no tolerance for leaders’ moral failures. Nor did he have any time for lecturing people about sex. He was too busy trying to help people and build a better world here at home and overseas.
We won't see his like again, but we have his example. After death finally stilled Father Ted’s heart last week 33 years after I met him that wintry night in South Bend, Ind., that will have to be enough.
Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in downtown San Diego. He is an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame.