The priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame into an academic power during his 35 years in charge while also serving as an adviser to popes and presidents has died.

University spokesman Paul Browne says the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh died Thursday night at age 97.

Hesburgh, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., was Notre Dame president from 1952 to 1987. During that time the university grew in size and stature and control of Notre Dame shifted from the order of priests who founded it to a lay board. He also was president when Notre Dame began admitting women in 1972.

Hesburgh also was a social activist who held hands with Martin Luther King Jr. during a 1964 civil rights rally and served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.