As an adviser to presidents, special envoy to popes, theologian, author, educator and activist, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who would have turned 100 today, was for decades considered the most influential Catholic priest in America. Although his career included sixteen presidential appointments, his relationship with President John F. Kennedy was especially noteworthy. Born just four days apart in May 1917, their paths would cross multiple times in the 1950s-1960s. One of the more memorable Notre Dame moments was when Fr. Hesburgh presented President Kennedy with the Laetare Medal in the Oval Office on November 22, 1961.
When John F. Kennedy took the oath of office of the President of the United States on January 20, 1961, he was the first Catholic to do so. As such, his name quickly rose to the top of nominations for the Laetare Medal, an honor Notre Dame has bestowed on exemplary American Catholics since 1883. Fearing a loyalty to the Vatican, factions in America were apprehensive of a Catholic president. Traditionally, the recipient of the medal is announced on Laetare Sunday in Lent, which was on March 12th in 1961. Not wanting to ruffle feathers so early in his presidency, Notre Dame was hesitant to bestow Kennedy the the honor during his first year in office. Breaking tradition of keeping the name secret until Laetare Sunday, University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh notified Kennedy in advance on February 14th, giving him the option to decline if it would cause too much public consternation (https://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/Archives/JFKPOF-030-011.aspx).
Kennedy accepted the offer, but the presentation wouldn’t occur until November 22, 1961. The Laetare presentation ceremony was not yet a staple of commencement exercises, and Notre Dame officials more often took the medal to the recipients rather than have them come to campus. On November 22, 1961, Fr. Hesburgh happened to be meeting with Kennedy and others for a Commission on Civil Rights meeting. Later that afternoon, Fr. Hesburgh and Notre Dame Vice President Rev. Edmund P. Joyce presented Kennedy the Laetare Medal in the Oval Office.
The Laetare Medal presentation was not Kennedy’s first or last interaction with Notre Dame and Fr. Hesburgh. Kennedy attended several Notre Dame football games, was the commencement speaker for winter 1950, and received the 1957 Patriot of the Year Award, and served on Notre Dame’s Liberal and Fine Arts Council. During Kennedy’s administration, Fr. Hesburgh served on the Commission on Civil Rights and the board of the National Science Foundation. Fr. Hesburgh played a significant role shaping in Kennedy’s 1961 Peace Corps initiative, making Notre Dame one of the first university sponsors and training centers for the program.
Kennedy’s untimely death exactly two years after the presentation of the Laetare Medal brought an abrupt end to the relationship. There is always room to speculate what might have been, but it is highly likely that Kennedy would have continued seeking the council of Fr. Hesburgh as so many other United States Presidents did.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (https://www.jfklibrary.org/)
“Notre Dame Honors John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States,” Notre Dame, Summer 1961
Telegram to President Kennedy – UPHS 57/31
Laetare Medal Presentation – GPHR 45/4321
1950 Winter Commencement – GPHR 45/1156
Stevenson, Kennedy, and Hesburgh in the stands of the MSU game, 1956 – GPHR 45/2937