Reflections on John Fitzgerald Kennedy

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of the 35th President of the United States has affected me more than I would have imagined.  Ironically, the reminders of the day President Kennedy died has brought my mother vividly back to life—she passed away in 2000, but I remember where I was that day, like so many other people.  And, I remember my mother’s reaction…

Unsurprisingly, I was home from school.  I can’t remember if I was really ill or if my mother had taken pity on me and simply let me stay home that day.  One of my younger sisters came home from school with the news that the president had been killed.  My mother admonished her that this was not a funny joke, and she indignantly replied that it was not a joke, all the teachers had been crying at school and it was on television.

What happened next has been shown in great detail this past week:  everyone sat glued to their television for four days.  Many people cried the entire time—my mother included.  I can close my eyes and see her, teary-eyed, watching every moment, over and over again in the days before VCRs and CDs were available, on our black and white TV.  It was startling and scary, not just that the president had been killed in such a random and senseless way, but that my mom was so shattered by it.  What had seemed to be an era of such forward-looking promise was gone in an instant.

One of the hallmarks of President Kennedy was his ability to inspire, to convey his great faith in the future of the United States and everyone’s role in bringing that future to life.  The rhetoric we hear today is nowhere near that level—he was relaxed, witty and erudite in front of crowds and a master of television.   Many of his most memorable phrases have been showcased this past week.

One of the most well-known is from his inaugural address:  “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

This phrase embodies an approach to life’s challenges that I have found to be very motivating, especially as an academic leader.  It suggests looking inwardly first, at the College and what we can accomplish ourselves, with the resources we have in hand or can generate with new programs, to move the College and the University forward.  It is a call to get out of “waiting mode,” and go into “action mode,” to focus on what we can do strategically with our own creativity, energy, and drive and speaks to being resilient and self-sufficient, long-held American values.

President Kennedy presented an ethos for other challenges as well, stating in his so-called Moon Speech in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Again, we see both the president’s ability to set up challenges and encourage people to face them.  His words ring true for academia as well: our programs are designed to be challenging, “hard,” if you will, to help raise student learning to the highest possible level.  We expect that this challenge will be met by the “best of our energies and skills,” on the part of our faculty and our students.  High achievement requires commitment and resolution—and both are a choice.  One can go through the motions and look for the easy way, or stand up to the challenge and look for ways to always put forth our best.  In many ways, an education reflects the efforts put into attaining it.  Those committed to do and be the best most often learn and accomplish the most.

This is the challenge I remember most from the “Kennedy Years:” the striving for excellence, the drive to accomplish great things and the sense of possibility that lay ahead of us.  The great thing about ideas is that they live on, long after people are gone, and can be shared freely, without suffering a loss.  This is what education is all about:

As George Bernard Shaw said: “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple…but if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”