Contemplation and Action at Land O’Lakes

Author: Brett Beasley

“I was hooked on the place the first time I saw it,” said Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., former president of the University of Notre Dame, referring to Land O'Lakes, a University-owned 8,000-acre site on the border of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He called it a “wonderful relaxing hideaway,” a “marvelous retreat close to nature,” and a place to escape “the interruptions and distractions of busy life.”

Over the decades, however, Hesburgh and other leaders arrived at Land O’Lakes to do more than hide away. In addition to launching fishing boats into the shimmering waters, they have used this remote locale to launch new visions—both for education and for equality—that have reshaped American society.

The first of these landmark visions appeared like a mirage slipping away in the hot summer of 1959. Hesburgh was serving as a politically independent member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which also included three Republicans and three Democrats. Created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Commission was sharply divided, struggling to complete the task it had been assigned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower: to investigate complaints of racial discrimination and issue a report with recommendations.

After holding hearings and gathering facts in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, the Commission gathered in Shreveport, Louisiana, to create its final report. At the time, Louisiana was racially segregated, so in an effort to work in an unsegregated location, the Commission was forced to stay at Barksdale Air Force Base. But after listening to noise from passing jets and attempting to work in the stifling heat, Hesburgh proposed a “much better place”: Land O’Lakes, the site he and other members of the Congregation of Holy Cross had long used for rest and contemplation.

Hesburgh arranged for a plane provided by a Notre Dame donor to pick the Commissioners up and transport them to the cooler air of northern Wisconsin. He also arranged for an important bit of relationship-building before the Commissioners got down to serious business, including a fishing excursion and strategically ensured the segregationist former governor of Virginia, John S. Battle, and George M. Johnson, the dean of the law school at Howard University—a pair that held the most sharply opposing views—were placed in the same boat.

With relationships strengthened, the Commission was able to progress on its Presidential-mandated task. Together with the help of legal assistants, the members completed its report, which outlined a case for federal intervention against racial discrimination consisting of 12 recommendations related to voting, education, and housing. All but one of the recommendations received unanimous support from the Commissioners.

Battle’s legal assistant later wrote to Hesburgh:

“My association with you and the other Commissioners are unforgettable experiences of which the Land O'Lakes meetings were the high point…I feel that the area of agreement and understanding that was the product of these last meetings couldn't have been reached at any other place or under other conditions.”

After receiving the report from the Commissioners, President Eisenhower admitted he was surprised. “I didn’t think you fellows would agree on anything,” he told Fr. Hesburgh, “Three of you are Democrats, three Republicans.” Father Hesburgh replied, “Mr. President, you didn’t appoint three Democrats and three Republicans; you appointed six fishermen.” Eisenhower reportedly told Father Hesburgh, “We've got to put more fishermen on commissions and have more reports written at Land O'Lakes, Wisconsin.”

The Commission’s recommendations eventually served as the basis for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation’s benchmark civil rights law, which legally ended the segregation that had been institutionalized by Jim Crow laws. The recommendations also influenced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

But, impactful and productive meetings at Land O’Lakes did not end with the Commission on Civil Rights meetings. Almost exactly eight years later, Fr. Hesburgh was serving as the president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU). He and a group of 26 Catholic priests and educators were set to discuss the nature and role of the contemporary Catholic university. A special focus was the relationship between Catholic universities and the Catholic Church in light of the modernization of Church teaching brought about by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In July of 1967, the IFCU convened a meeting at Land O’Lakes and released an influential manifesto called “The Idea of the Catholic University,” which today is widely known as the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” The document declared that a Catholic university must be a “true modern university” defined by ”institutional autonomy and academic freedom.” At the same time, the document argued, a Catholic university will also be “an institution, a community of learners or a community of scholars, in which Catholicism is perceptibly present and effectively operative.”

In the words of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., “The document’s limitations left questions to be addressed, but the vision in broad outline is one that makes truly serious Catholic research universities possible for our time.” More than 50 years later, the “Land O’Lakes Statement” continues to provide a model for Catholic education in the modern world.

Today, the site still serves as a retreat for visiting Holy Cross priests, but the majority of summer visitors to Land O’Lakes are Notre Dame undergraduate students participating in a unique field biology program. But whether they arrive for rest, recreation, or research, visitors tend to agree with Fr. Hesburgh’s statement that “I love the quiet and the wilderness because we live in a very noisy world.” Thanks in no small part to his legacy, Land O’Lakes remains not just a place to hide away but a place for drawing contemplation back into one’s action and for bringing a little quiet back into the noisy world.


Brett Beasley / Writer and Editorial Program Manager

Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame / +1 574-631-8183 / @UNDResearch

About Notre Dame Research:

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see or @UNDResearch.

Originally published by Brett Beasley at on December 12, 2023.