I was watching the televised coverage of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame this weekend, and how the camera showed Father Theodore Hesburgh, the 90-something President Emeritus of the university, sitting proudly in the arena.
That prompted me to call my father, to ask him a question, because I remembered something from our family history.
“Was that the same Father Hesburgh who’s in one of our photo albums?”
“Yes,” my Dad replied.
He then shared with me the following story.
In 1961, my father, who was fluent in Russian and German via his military training at the U.S. Army’s Monterey Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, got a summer job working for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. He was about to receive his Ph.D. (in economics) from the University of Vienna.
But the degree hadn’t been conferred yet, and meanwhile he had two tiny toddlers at home with mouths to feed — namely me and my 2-year-old older brother.
Having that well-paying summer job also gave my Dad a much-coveted pass to the U.N. commissary. This meant not only that he could buy “all the most exquisite stuff,” but also that he could have it for much less than what ordinary non-diplomatic Viennese citizens had to pay.
At the time, the I.A.E.A., which was set up a few years earlier within the United Nations, was holding many large internationally attended conferences on an ongoing basis to discuss and ensure the idea of “atoms for peace.”
They hired summer students to help with everything from straightening out chairs to placing pads and pencils before delegates to handing out stacks of documents. One day, while my father was walking around at an I.A.E.A. conference performing these duties, one of the attending international delegates stopped him to take an interest in who he was and what he was doing there.
My father explained he was a student from America, about to get a doctorate in economics.
“What are you going to do with it,” the man asked.
“Go back to America to teach.”
Being a first-generation college grad from the South Side of Chicago, my Dad felt compelled go home in hopes of making a difference in the ongoing and increasingly heated civil rights movement.
“Don’t go to America,” the man said. “You’re much more needed in Africa.”
“How do I get there?”
“There’s a charter flight leaving Brussels in two weeks, heading to the Congo; there’s a college there called the University of Lovanium, and if you can get to Brussels, they’ll take care of the rest.”
Sure enough, my Dad got to Brussels, flew to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), interviewed with the university, and agreed to join the faculty there.
He then moved our family to Africa, where we settled into a modest home inside a university-run housing compound. My youngest brother was born there.
According to my father, who had humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago, the university paid for everything — the travel, the moving, the housing — which, with his salary, allowed him to save up enough to buy our first house once we finally moved back to the United States a few years later.
That man, who suggested to my Dad that he go to Africa — and arranged everything — was Father Theodore Hesburgh, then the president of the University of Notre Dame.
At the time he was also the permanent Vatican City representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and that’s why he was attending those conferences.
And, he had been a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — appointed by President Eisenhower in 1957.
During his speech at Notre Dame, President Obama mentioned the work of this commission, and the pivotal role that Father Hesburgh played in helping the group reach common ground around potentially volatile and deeply entrenched issues of race.
The commission’s recommendations ultimately led to President Johnson’s historic Civil Rights Act in 1964, the year Father Hesburgh marched hand-in-hand with Dr. Martin Luther King.
So, his advice to my father during that summer of 1961 was not just idle chatter.
Father Hesburgh and my Dad remained in contact, met socially on occasion, and became friends.
“He was a guiding angel,” my father says today.
I never knew this story within the story within the story. Even about my own family history. Until now.
But it explains the black and white photographs in our old family album.
It explains the genesis of how on earth our family ended up in Africa, where Ebony Magazine did a feature story on him and our family in 1965.
And it explains why it was so very appropriate after all, for the University of Notre Dame to host President Barack Obama for the purpose of conferring on him an honorary degree.
UPDATE (February 26, 2015): Rest in Peace, Father Theodore Hesburgh (1917-2015)