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Remembering Fr. Theodore M. “Ted” Hesburgh and the 1961 Notre Dame Laetare Medal

 

by Maryrose Grossman, Audiovisual Reference Archivist

Aside from being born four days apart (in May 1917), President John F. Kennedy and Fr. Theodore M. “Ted” Hesburgh had other things in common. Both were steeped in Catholic tradition as well as committed to public service. They were also charismatic leaders who exhorted generations to combat the world’s problems and to achieve personal success in the service of others. President Kennedy’s career in public service began in 1946, first as a U.S. Representative and later as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Fr. Hesburgh served as President of the University of Notre Dame from 1952-1987; he was also a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a champion of higher education and other causes throughout his long life.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy directly addressed anti-Catholic bias and misconceptions about his religion; he triumphed over this obstacle to win the presidential election. The question of his potential allegiance to the Pope over the U.S. Constitution was of particular concern to many, and Kennedy quelled those fears at an address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960. Kennedy stated:

 

I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters—and the Church does not speak for me. [1]

 

Fr. Hesburgh later spoke of the anti-Catholic issue, perhaps somewhat humorously:

 

That was talked about far and wide. It was really a bigoted kind of thing. There was no sense to it. The last thing in the world the Kennedys would do is go to the Pope for advice. [2]

 

Every year the University of Notre Dame offers the Laetare Medal to a prominent American Catholic layman. Since 1883, the University has provided “by tradition and general acceptance, the most honored and outstanding lay award in the United States.” [3] It is not surprising that the 1961 Laetare Medal was awarded to President Kennedy. However, the award was not a fait accompli; aware of lingering anti-Catholic sentiment, Fr. Hesburgh did not want to risk further alienating President Kennedy from certain circles by giving him the medal; he therefore offered the President the choice of whether to accept the 1961 award. Fr. Hesburgh wrote in a letter to the President on February 14, 1961:

 

As I see the alternatives, some vocal non-Catholics might raise their eyebrows; on the other hand, I am sure it would be rather incomprehensible to the more than forty million Catholics in this country if anyone but yourself were given the award this year… It seems to me only proper that you yourself should make the this decision. [4]

 

 

 View the entire folder related to Fr. Hesburgh, here.

 

President Kennedy decided to accept the Laetare Medal and Fr. Hesburgh sent a handwritten note expressing his delight that the President would be receiving the award for 1961.

 

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 View the entire folder related to Fr. Hesburgh, here.

 

The ceremony took place in the Oval Office on November 22, 1961. President Kennedy did not offer prepared remarks, perhaps in concession to any vocal non-Catholics who might disapprove.

 

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View the entire folder of photographs related to the 1961 Laetare Medal, here.

 

Two years later, to the day, President Kennedy was assassinated; Fr. Theodore Hesburgh lived another 51+ years and died on February 26, 2015, at the age of 97.

Just four days after President Kennedy’s death, Fr. Hesburgh published an essay in the University of Notre Dame’s campus magazine, Scholastic. In it he stated:

 

If John F. Kennedy’s death has any message for America and all the world, it is this: ‘Get on the road, because the hour is late’. [5]

 

Hesburgh’s words resonated with those of President Kennedy in his Inaugural Address:

 

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. [6]

 

The significance of President Kennedy’s award of the 1961 Laetare Medal was reflected in the following statement by Fr. Hesburgh following the President’s death:

 

The truest tragedy is not that some like John Kennedy fall victim along the way, but that so many others lack both the commitment and dedication to get started. Those who fall along the way do indeed become great beacons of light for those that follow them. [7]

 


[1] The Speeches of Senator John F. Kennedy Presidential Campaign of 1960 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office), p. 210.

[2] Margaret Fosmoe, “Hesburgh Reflects on JFK,” South Bend Tribune, 21 November 2013.

[3] JFKPOF-030-011-p0008

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fosmoe.

[6] Public Papers of the President of the United States: John F. Kennedy 1961 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office), p. 2.

[7] Fosmoe.

 

 

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