Hesburgh honored to the nth degree

by Will Higgins

Every spring, universities roll out the red carpet for a handful of distinguished guests: the honorary degree recipients.p.

Men and women, often famous (and often having no real connection to the institution), fly into town, attend receptions in their honor and have very nice things said about them at ceremonies.

Generally, one of them delivers the commencement address.

It’s a win-win arrangement. On Saturday, for example, Dick Enberg, a sportscaster, got to hold forth in front of thousands at Indiana University’s commencement.

The thousands benefitted, too, because, let’s face it, it’s easier to pay attention to a celebrity than some egghead.

That explains why comedian Bill Cosby has received more than 100 honorary degrees — about four times as many as Arthur Schlesinger, the historian.

Colleges are pretty august places, though. There’s a limit to how deep into the pages of People magazine they will delve.

Cosby is perfect — not only is he a big name and an entertaining speaker, he’s also a genuinely educated man, with a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts.

The king of the honorary degree, however, is Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame. Hesburgh is august, but he’s a celebrity, too. During his tenure at Notre Dame, he made himself into practically a world leader — a confidante to presidents.

He has 148 honorary degrees. It’s more than anyone else, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Hesburgh has received honoraries from universities throughout the world. Taking into account travel time, Hesburgh, 84, has spent perhaps a year of his life getting honorary degrees.

“I’ve put in a lot of miles,” he says, “and 90 percent of the time I’m the one giving the commencement address.”

Obviously, Hesburgh enjoys all the fuss. Who wouldn’t?

But even he doesn’t always say yes. “This year, I turned down two” degrees, he says, because of scheduling conflicts. He declined to say from where, to save the schools from embarrassment.

It shouldn’t be embarrassing — things come up. Just last week, Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico, canceled on Notre Dame — “political circumstances,” said a Notre Dame news release.

Subbing for Fox will be Tim Russert, the journalist. Edward Malloy, Hesburgh’s successor at Notre Dame, covered nicely: “Tim Russert has been on our list of potential commencement speakers for some time, and though we didn’t anticipate having him join us in this way, we’re delighted. . . .”

Hesburgh downplays his status as honorary degree leader. He keeps nothing for himself. He gives the certificates and the ceremonial hoods, the standard artifacts that come with an honorary, to Notre Dame’s archives. “After I kick off,” he says, “they might display them some place. But that’s only because I wouldn’t be around to stop them.”

On the other hand, he likes being first. In 1997, he fell from top spot, displaced by the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Hesburgh smelled a rat. “I figured the king must be counting high schools or grammar schools,” he says. “I sent him my list, and he backed off.”

But Hesburgh goes modest again when asked how many honoraries he wants.

“My goal is to quit,” he quips. "I think it’s time to yell ‘uncle.’ "

But not yet.

Later this month, Hesburgh is scheduled to receive honorary degree numbers 149 and 150.

May 06, 2002

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