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NEW YORK — The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the former president of the University of Notre Dame who stood up to both the White House and the Vatican as he transformed Catholic higher education in America and raised a powerful moral voice in national affairs, died late Thursday in South Bend, Ind. He was 97.

The university confirmed his death on its website, saying he had died just before midnight at Holy Cross House, which is next to the university.

As an adviser to presidents, special envoy to popes, theologian, author, educator, and activist, Rev. Hesburgh was for decades considered the most influential priest in America. In 1986, when he retired after a record 35 years as president of Notre Dame, a survey of 485 university presidents named him the most effective college president in the country.

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“In his historic service to the nation, the church and the world, he was a steadfast champion for human rights, the cause of peace and care for the poor,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, said.

The Rev. Hesburgh in 2006.
The Rev. Hesburgh in 2006.Peter Thompson/New York Times/File

Rev. Hesburgh held more than a dozen White House appointments under six presidents. For years, he was chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights and of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

Yet he was never awed by the power of the Oval Office. He tangled with the Nixon administration over busing, civil rights, and other issues, skirmishes that led to his resignation as chairman of the civil rights commission. He also fought a White House plan to use federal troops to put down campus demonstrations and persuaded the president to drop the idea.

He was just as willing to stand up to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II called on him for help in ecumenical matters, yet he resisted the church’s attempts to assert greater control over Catholic universities.

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After the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s, endorsed a larger role for lay Catholics in the Mass and other aspects of the faith, Rev. Hesburgh handed over control of the university from the Congregation of the Holy Cross, which had founded it in 1842, to a largely secular board.

Having a major Catholic university governed by laymen was not popular with the Vatican or with conservative Catholics. Some members of the Holy Cross order feared that Rev. Hesburgh had surrendered too much control. But he contended that by bringing in secular leaders with a wide range of skills, the university gained greater governing expertise and more financial flexibility.

Since then, nearly every major Catholic college has followed his lead and formed a lay board.

Rev. Hesburgh further inflamed his conservative critics by leading a group of Catholic educators to assert a degree of doctrinal independence from Rome. Meeting at the Holy Cross retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wis., in 1967, the group issued a landmark policy statement declaring that the pursuit of truth, not religious indoctrination, was the ultimate goal of Catholic higher learning in the United States.

That position had implications for what could be taught at the universities and who could be hired to teach, issues that remain contentious.

Rev. Hesburgh received 150 honorary degrees. He was the only Catholic priest elected to Harvard’s Board of Overseers, and served as the board’s president from 1994 to 1996.

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He understood the special role football played in Notre Dame’s reputation, but he was not a huge football fan, and he resented the influence that collegiate sports had on higher education. At his inauguration as president in 1952, he was appalled when local newspapers sent sportswriters to cover the event, and he refused to cooperate with photographers who asked him to pose with a football.

“I’m not the football coach,” he barked at the surprised journalists. “I’m the president.”

Theodore Martin Hesburgh was born in Syracuse in 1917, one of five children of Theodore Bernard Hesburgh and the former Anne Murphy. His father was an executive at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.

Reared in a religious home, Rev. Hesburgh had wanted to be a priest from age 6. When he was in the eighth grade, four Holy Cross missionaries came to preach at his parish church and captivated him with their talk of Notre Dame.

After graduating from high school, he entered the Holy Cross seminary on the Notre Dame campus and was sent to Rome to study for advanced degrees in philosophy and theology. But with the outbreak of World War II, he was forced to return to the United States. He was ordained at Notre Dame in 1943, when he was 26.

Rev. Hesburgh resisted going into administration at Notre Dame, preferring the classroom. But he was made vice president and assistant to the president, the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh. In 1952, at age 35, he took over as president.

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At the time, Notre Dame was a small university regarded as strong in football and weak in just about everything else but theology.

Rev. Hesburgh set out to build up the faculty, upgrade academic standards, and increase the size of the school, which admitted women for the first time in 1972. He became an effective fund-raiser, inheriting a $9 million endowment and increasing it to $350 million. Notre Dame has one of the largest endowments in the nation, exceeding $9 billion.

Rev. Hesburgh served on 16 presidential commissions, in both Democratic and Republican administrations. His first appointment was in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him to the National Science Board. Eisenhower made him a charter member of the Commission on Civil Rights in 1957. He became its chairman in 1969.