For over half a century, Robert Schmuhl interviewed and wrote about Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., who served as the president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 until 1987. Beginning as an undergraduate student during the 1960s, when he covered Hesburgh and Notre Dame for the Associated Press, to 2014 when he conducted his last visit with the frail ninety-seven-year-old priest, Schmuhl maintained a unique relationship with Father Hesburgh. Over time, Hesburgh’s meetings with Schmuhl evolved into a friendship, which is documented in this personal and warmhearted portrait of the man who was for decades considered the most influential priest in America. Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record contains excerpts and commentary from various interviews Schmuhl conducted with Father Hesburgh about his service as Notre Dame’s president, including the most difficult years of his presidency during the 1960s, when Notre Dame and other college campuses were in turmoil because of student protests against the Vietnam War and other issues. Knowing and working with four popes and nine U.S. presidents, Father Hesburgh was a moral force in virtually all major social issues of his day, including civil rights, peaceful uses of atomic energy, third-world development, and immigration reform. Schmuhl records Hesburgh’s candid reflections on the U.S. presidents with whom he worked and his assessment of the years after he left the university’s presidency and maintained an active life of service in retirement. Schmuhl expresses his devotion and respect in the chapters about Hesburgh’s twilight decades. He describes how Hesburgh dealt with macular degeneration and blindness in his later years, enlisting students to read the New York Times and other publications to him. During the 1990s and the first years of the twenty-first century, Father Ted was, as he liked to say, “everybody’s grandfather.” His open-door policy extended beyond students to faculty, staff, alumni, and campus visitors, and continued right up until the end of his life. Throughout the book, Schmuhl captures the essence, spirit, and humanity of a great leader.
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