SOUTH BEND -- The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh will spend Friday, his 95th birthday, as he spends every birthday -- fishing for bass, walleye and northern pike in northern Wisconsin.

"The years are tough and they get tougher. But at the end of the year, you take a deep breath and go fishing," says Hesburgh, the famous priest who served as president of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987.

He spoke during an interview Monday in his office on the 13th floor of the campus library that bears his name.

A day earlier, he sat outdoors under a hot sun in the stands of Notre Dame Stadium for more than two hours during commencement. He attends every year.

On Tuesday, he left for his annual May fishing trip to Land O' Lakes, Wis., where the university owns an environmental research center. It's his place for respite and renewal. "Fishing has a great therapeutic value. It gets you out in the sunshine and fresh air and gets you exercise," he says.

He doesn't eat what he catches. "I don't particularly like fish. I toss them back unless they are a record of some kind," he says.

He'll return to campus next week, in time to participate in the annual Notre Dame alumni reunion weekend.

At 95, Hesburgh is the oldest living Holy Cross priest in the United States.

Hesburgh's voice and his gait have slowed, but he still has more energy than many people several decades his junior. He walks with a cane made necessary because of faded eyesight, the result of macular degeneration.

Except for his sight, he says his health is fine. "I haven't missed a day's work since I came here in 1934. I'm not about to complain about health," he says.

He offers his own motto to others who are facing their retirement years.

"I think you do as much as you can, as long as you can, as well as you can," Hesburgh says.

He keeps up to date on campus, national and international news.

On this day, Notre Dame had filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a federal regulation that requires religious organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and other services that go against Catholic Church teachings. It was among dozens of suits that Catholic dioceses, schools and other institutions filed Monday in federal courts across the nation.

Hesburgh says he was aware that Notre Dame administrators were planning the suit, but he didn't want to comment on it in detail.

"I would only say that I think the university is doing what it should do. The government just overreached and overstretched and has to be brought up short," he says.

A large window in his office looks down on the campus he largely built, with a clear view of the Golden Dome-topped Main Building. The room is filled with mementos of Hesburgh's life and career: medals and other honors, photos of him with presidents and other world leaders, and books everywhere.

Hesburgh, who led the university for 35 years, was Notre Dame's longest-serving president.

He was born May 25, 1917. It was the same year the U.S. joined World War I, the 2 millionth Model T rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line and a little-known student named George Gipp joined the Notre Dame football team.

Hesburgh says he never expected to live this long. Both his parents died in their 60s, so he doesn't attribute his longevity to family genes. And he hasn't taken any special care of himself or his health.

"I've worked very hard every day. I've been going around the clock for years and years and years," he says. "I don't think I've pampered myself or taken care of myself. I just try to work flat out as much as I can."

He's among 47 residents in Holy Cross House, the priests' retirement home on a hill high above St. Joseph's Lake.

On a typical day, Hesburgh is up and having breakfast by 8 a.m. He spends five to six hours weekdays working and meeting guests in his office in the library.

On this particular day, he had lunch at the Morris Inn with the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, his successor as Notre Dame's president, and Timothy O'Meara, who was university provost during much of Hesburgh's presidency. The three get together at least once a month.

"We not only worked together but we're all good friends. A lot of people who get out of a corporation want to get as far away as they can. Here, you want to hang around and be friends with people," Hesburgh says.

He typically has four or five appointments each day, but his day is peppered with visits by others who stop by and want to meet him. He has an open door policy for students, employees and alumni. "I've never been a big appointments guy," he says.

He celebrates Mass every day, as he has since he was ordained on June 24, 1943.

In the evenings, Hesburgh often dines with friends and former colleagues at restaurants in the South Bend area. If he doesn't have a dinner engagement, he joins in dinner with fellow residents at Holy Cross House.

Some of the elderly priests socialize together in the evenings, but Hesburgh says he doesn't have much time for that.

"I generally have work to do. And I'm catching up on the news. I try to keep in touch with what's going on in the world," he says.

During his years as president, Hesburgh was famous for working until 2 or 3 a.m. in his office in the Main Building. Generations of students recall walking by the building at night and seeing the light still burning in Hesburgh's office.

Those days are past. "I generally get to bed by midnight now," he says.

Hesburgh, who visited every country on earth in his younger days, doesn't travel much anymore. "I think my traveling days are pretty much over. I could do it, but I just decided that at 95 not to do it," he says.

The last trip he took was to the Baja Peninsula in Mexico at Easter, the same area where he spent Christmas for many years.

Hesburgh still attends Notre Dame home football games, but generally not away games. He's considering going to the Notre Dame-Navy game on Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland.

"I'm leaving it out there with a big question mark, but I'd say the odds are I'm not going. You don't plan ahead very much when you're 95," he says.

After a long career, Hesburgh has no regrets about paths he didn't take.

"No, I think I pretty much did what I wanted to do. All I really wanted to do was be a priest," he says.

And his achievements at Notre Dame weren't accomplished alone, he points out. "I also had some very wonderful people around me, priests and lay people, helping build this place. It's built very well. It's a far cry from when I arrived in 1934," Hesburgh says.

Fall is his favorite time of year on campus, because it's full of activities. And spring is important to him too, because of graduation and the arrival of parents, friends and alumni.

Hesburgh has outlived nearly all his old friends and contemporaries, but he still feels comfortable with people of all ages.

Melanie Chapleau, his office manager and executive assistant, has worked for Hesburgh for 25 years. And two Holy Cross priests -- the Rev. Austin Collins and the Rev. Paul Doyle -- help him get to appointments and commitments on campus.

"I'm grateful to them because they make sure I get where I have to go," he says. "Having a couple of younger guys around is a big help. Besides, they are very personable guys to be around."

He has words of wisdom for younger people trying to find their path in the world.

"It's important to find out what you can do well and try to spend your life doing it," he says. "In other words, everybody can't be an astronaut and everybody can't be the head of General Motors. Everybody can't be president of a university.

"But find out what you can do and do it as well as you can. And when it's over, you can relax and be at peace," Hesburgh says. "I think we all have some contributions to make."


www.facebook.com/tribune.margaretfosmoe


Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe:
mfosmoe@sbtinfo.com
574-235-6329