Father Jenkins’ statement on the passing of Harper Lee

by Dennis Brown

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, remembered fondly the rare public appearance of author Harper Lee at the University of Notre Dame’s 161st commencement ceremony.

“When Harper Lee received her honorary degree at Notre Dame in 2006, 2,800 graduates stood with paperbacks of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in their hands – a fitting tribute to the woman who helped shape both their social consciousness and love of literature,” he said upon learning of her passing Friday (Feb. 19) at age 89.

Author Harper Lee at the 2006 Notre Dame Commencement ceremony Author Harper Lee at the 2006 Notre Dame Commencement ceremony

The citation honoring Lee reads in part: “Her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a testament to the power of one person – even one who happens to be small – that introduced us to some of the most poignant, and most human, characters in contemporary fiction. They, and she, taught us that we are more alike than different; that, in the words of her heroine, young Scout, ‘There’s just one kind of folks. Folks.’”

In a Feb. 21, 2006, letter to Father Jenkins accepting the invitation to receive the honorary degree, Lee wrote: “Never in my days did I imagine that I would receive such recognition; Notre Dame is the symbol of all that is of good report in American education. To be honored by an institution for which I have such respect makes me feel humble indeed, and enormously proud … If you look out your window on a clear night, you may see an old lady jumping over the moon.”

Lee was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letter degree at the 2006 commencement ceremony, which also featured an address by Mary McAleese, president of Ireland, and a piano performance by Laetare Medalist Dave Brubeck.