“When President Kennedy headed to Amherst College for a dedication ceremony, he might have expected to be a big voice in national affairs for decades to come. Instead, we got an unexpected valedictory, a statement of values at the end of a man’s life. In this book you’ll travel to a small town in Massachusetts in 1963, and see how this speech from JFK echoed through the lives of the young men there to hear it. Sometimes small events end up being big ones.” — RAY SUAREZ, Journalist, author, visiting professor at Amherst College
“A heart-warming book that recreates for a new generation an optimistic young president honoring an aging poet’s art and combines youthful reactions of students who were there with mature stories from the paths they followed in their own creative lives.” — ALICE M. RIVLIN, Senior fellow in Economic Studies and the Center for Health Policy at the Brookings Institute
“At a time when political morality, civility, and fidelity to a common destiny are brutally trampled, day by day, this volume on JFK’s call for the cultivation of civic virtue is welcome nourishment for our democracy. Kennedy’s final speech not only affirms the value of a liberal arts education as the seedbed for public service but serves as timely inspiration for Americans aching to restore and reclaim the American dream.” — HEDRICK SMITH, Author of Who Stole the American Dream?, executive editor of reclaimtheamericandream.org
“This book sounds a much-needed non-partisan call for public service and civic engagement.” — JAMES HARDING, Major General, USA (ret)
“JFK: The Last Speech is a project that could not have come to a boil at a more appropriate time in our nation’s history nor been presented in so compelling a way. At its heart it is a call to arms in the battle to preserve and enhance civic life, a challenge the project meets in film, on its website and—most ambitious—as a book. Essayists from academia, journalism, the arts, and from a distinguished array of the country’s deepest thinkers offer thoughts provoked by John F. Kennedy’s last speech. The speech reminds us what an inspiration a president can be and each of these essays proves it. It is a volume to be read, reread, and then read yet again.” — DOUG CLIFTON, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, former Executive Editor of the Miami Herald, and Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“Over a half a century later, John F. Kennedy’s October 1963 visit to Amherst College still resonates. The many legacies of Kennedy’s soaring speech and brief appearance are captured wonderfully in these fascinating pages.” — ELLEN FITZPATRICK, Historian, specializing in modern American political and intellectual history. Author of nine books including Letters to Jackie and The Highest Glass Ceiling.
“The arrival of this documentary film, book and website could not be more timely. Our deeply divided nation needs more humanistic reflection, not less; more art, not less; more attempts to understand ourselves and each other, as we try to reach some agreement about what truly matters. That is what is championed in this outstanding collection of essays.” — DAVID TEBALDI, PhD. Executive Director of MassHumanities since 1985. Editor of Reflecting on Values, The Unity and Diversity of the Humanities. 2017 recipient of the Commonwealth Award for Leadership in improving civic life in Massachusetts.
A month before he died, President Kennedy gave a stirring speech to the students at Amherst College as he dedicated a library named for Robert Frost. JFK called that generation to lives of civic action that would be guided by the insights of liberal arts education and would challenge entrenched power appropriately. JFK: The Last Speech reissues his challenge to a nation that sorely needs it. The book is a rich, diverse, and moving collection of original materials from the dedication (and then memorial) events of the fall of 1963 at Amherst, stories of how the speech galvanized students in the audience to lead lives of civic commitment, and reflections on these themes by a set of distinguished commentators. The book is a civics course in a nutshell.” — HAROLD BRUFF, J.D. Former Dean of the University of Colorado Law School. Former senior attorney and advisor for the Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Dept. of Justice. Author of Untrodden Ground: How Presidents Interpret the Constitution (2015).
“In a time when the value of contributing to the common good must return to the political foreground, this book and the man it details serve as reminders of the power of service. JKF, the builder of the Peace Corps and the inspiration of a generation, is set as a model and challenger for current and future generations, posing the timeless and urgent question: “for what do we use our powers, or does power use us?” — ROSANNE HAGGERTY, Founder and CEO of Community Solutions; a leader in solving problems that create and sustain homelessness; MacArthur Foundation Fellow, Ashoka Senior Fellow, recipient of Jane Jacobs medal for New Ideas and Activism.
“Required reading for anyone who wants to learn about the power of words in providing political and civic leadership. President Kennedy mastered the art of language in conveying a timeless message about our nation and its highest principles. Like Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, he used language to reinforce our loftiest ideals.” — KENNETH FEINBERG, Former Administrator of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, Former Chairman of the Board of Directors for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, author of What Is Life Worth? and Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.
NOTE FROM CULLEN MURPHY
Chair of the Board of Trustees of Amherst College
By the time I was an undergraduate, John F. Kennedy’s visit to the campus was a decade in the past. And that decade had seemed like a century. But the visit itself remained fresh in many minds. And the message can never be dimmed by age. Has any president spoken more eloquently about the critical role of literature and the arts in the life of our republic? Or about the critical responsibilities that go with privilege? I use the word “critical” in all senses of that term. To deliver this message at Amherst was especially appropriate – a college with a long tradition of service, one that would be revitalized by many of the students who heard Kennedy speak. To hear Kennedy’s words—and to see the copy of the speech he revised by hand, which shows him to have been a superb literary craftsman—is to connect with a moment that transcends the conventional unfurling of time. Amherst College is proud to congratulate all who played a part in creating JFK: The Last Speech.
Introduction to the book
The documentary film and book, JFK: The Last Speech, emerged from the 50th reunion project of the Amherst College Class of 1964. The film and book describe the background of Kennedy’s relationship with Robert Frost, the challenge President Kennedy presented to students at Amherst College, how some of those students responded over the following half-century, and the relevance and haunting irony that JFK’s words bring to the problems of now. When civic culture is fractured and the value of the liberal arts is questioned, this message from 1963 has particular resonance
For the first time in our American history, Kennedy invited a poet, Robert Frost, to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. Their relationship continued through most of JFK’s term, until a schism in the fall of 1962. Nonetheless, President Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at a convocation at Amherst College to dedicate the Robert Frost Library. That speech, little noticed at the time, has since been recognized as Kennedy’s finest. We heard that speech firsthand; we wanted a new generation to hear those words. Our classmates’ stories show the impact that Kennedy’s speech —and Calvin Plimpton’s eulogy — had on our lives; these stories demonstrate how to put ideas into action. Finally, and more importantly, we wanted to show that Kennedy’s message is more relevant than ever before to contemporary life.
The first part of the book, JFK: The Last Speech, “October-November 1963,” introduce contemporary readers to both Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy and provide critical source documents: the text of Kennedy’s speech, his remarks at the groundbreaking, and Amherst president Calvin Plimpton’s brief eulogy for the fallen president on November 22, 1963. First-person accounts of the president’s visit from a variety of perspectives round out the story, and an annotated timeline adds the context of national and world events at the time.
In the second part, “Let us go and do the work he couldn’t complete,” the four individuals featured in the documentary film, Ted Nelson, Steve Downs, Gene Palumbo, and George Wanlass, tell their remarkably different stories in greater depth. Nelson, a lifelong activist, describes his experiences with the Peace Corps in rural Turkey; Downs, an attorney, recounts his efforts to bring justice to wrongly accused immigrants; Palumbo, who reports for the New York Times, witnesses the ravages of war on life in El Salvador; Wanlass, a rancher, tells of collecting the art of the American West for the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University. Seven additional classmates tell their stories as well; stories that illustrate the lifelong impact of Kennedy’s speech and Plimpton’s eulogy.
In the third and final part, “Poetry, Power, and Citizenship in the Modern World,” distinguished individuals have contributed their thoughts on the role of education and the liberal arts in our world today. Poets, artists, writers, political and religious leaders, all have been in the forefront of the effort to clarify our values. Jon Meacham examines Kennedy’s leadership; Jay Parini brings Frost’s poetry to a contemporary audience. Robert Redford graciously allowed us to reprint his essay, “Society’s Questioner,” and Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III gave us permission to reprint his remarks at Amherst College, October 28, 2017, at a symposium titled “Poetry and Politics: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of President John F. Kennedy.”
These collected stories, from various perspectives, recall or revisit a towering speech. The reader can find the background of the Frost-Kennedy relationship and the words the audience heard, see the words in action over five decades, and then explore the lessons that they hold for us today.
If these stories — the memories of one fall day and a presidential speech, the lives our classmates lived, and the reflections of historians and scholars — stimulate well-informed, civil, serious discussions and renewed civic engagement, then we have done what we set out to do.
On April 9, 1963, President Kennedy issued a presidential proclamation that made Winston Churchill an honorary citizen of the United States. In that proclamation, Kennedy stated that Churchill “… mobilized the English Language and sent it into battle.” In the spirit of John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill, in our own modest efforts to bring light to darkness, we send our words into the breach. — Ted Nelson, Roger Mills
“I look forward to an America, which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength, but for its civilization as well.”
— President Kennedy at Amherst College
JFK: The Last Speech
Edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills and Jan Worth-Nelson
NOTE FROM CULLEN MURPHY:
Chair of the Board of Trustees of Amherst College
“Poetry and Politics” — Biddy Martin, President of Amherst College
Ted Nelson, ’64, Roger Mills, ’64, and Reunion ’64
Fall 1963 on Campus.
One Fall Day: Frost and Kennedy — Roger Mills, ’64
Robert Frost: The Poet as Educator — Paul Dimond, ’66 and Roger Mills, ’64
Those Who Were There — Vignettes
Cheering Loudly, Fearing Quietly — James T. Giles, ’64
The Vigil Outside Kirby — Mitch Meisner, ’64
Noises Off — Chatland Whitmore, ’64
The President and the Poet — Mark J. Sandler, ’64
Kennedy Has Been Shot — Robert Knox, ’64
Communal Guilt? — David Pearle, ’64
Do the Work He Couldn’t Complete — Rip Sparks, ’64
Kennedy on Campus
The Convocation Address — John F. Kennedy, October 26,1963
The President’s Remarks at the Library Groundbreaking
Frost and Stone: The Convocation Address
— Archibald Macleish
President Plimpton’s Address to the College
Poetry, Stalinism, and the Cuban Missile Crisis — Stewart L. Udall
JFK’S HANDWRITTEN EDITS
to the Speech Drafted by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Annotated Timeline — Rip Sparks, ’64
Doing the Work He Couldn’t Complete.
The Life of an Activist — Ted Nelson, ’64
Truth to Power — Steve Downs, ’64
Given to Me — Gene Palumbo, ’64
“With Privilege Goes Responsibility” — George Wanlass, ’64
Carrying the Torch — Vignettes
My Year in Vietnam with MILPHAP Team 20 — Thomas P. Jacobs, ’64
From Art History to Biomedical Research — Doug Lowy, ’64
A Continuing Journey –Pat Deleon, ’64
Kennedy, the Liberal Arts, and My Path — Paul Stern, ’64
You Go to Amherst College. Period. — Stephen Eaton Smith, ’64
Late Bloomer — Don Lombardi, ’64
Meeting Kennedy’s Challenge in the Private Sector — Steve Drotter, ’64
Privilege and Responsibility — Jesse Brill, ’64
“The World We Inherited; The World We Will Bequeath” and What We Can Do About It — Charles Stover, ’64
Looking Backward with pride … forward with hope.
The President and the Poet
On Arts and Politics — Joseph Kennedy III
Frost and Kennedy on Poetry and Power in a Democracy — Robert Benedetti, ’64
A Witness to History Robert Frost and Jack Kennedy, Then and Now — Paul Dimond, ’66
A Lover’s Quarrel
Robert Frost and the Nature of New England — Jay Parini
Poetry, Power and High School English — David Stringer, ’64
The Cultural Implications of Post-1970 Art: End of The Enlightenment? — Bradford R. Collins, ’64
Lifting the Human Spirit
When a President Dared to Go to Amherst — Nicholas Zeppos
Society’s Questioner — Robert Redford
The Touchstone of Our Judgment — Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein
The World of Thought and the Seat of Power: The Leadership of John F. Kennedy — Jon Meacham
The Personal Presidency: John F. Kennedy’s Legacy — Mickey Edwards
My Dream for America: A New Generation of Leadership — Steven Olikara
“A College Such as This”
What is the Earthly Use of a Liberal Arts Education?– Fareed Zakaria
Liberal Arts: The Acquisition of Languages– Mark J. Sandler, ’64
Addressing Inequality: Education for the Information Age– Joseph Stiglitz, ’64
Answering President Kennedy’s Challenge — Dakota Foster, ’18
The Solace from Well-Chosen Words — Bestor Cram
Discussion Questions on Kennedy, Frost and Civic Engagement
Peace Corps Service — Amherst Class of 1964
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
—Robert Frost, “Dedication”
The people of this countryside, may forget in ordinary human course what anyone says on this occasion, but they will remember for many, many years that a young and gallant president of the United States, with the weight of history heavy upon his shoulders, somehow found time to come to our small corner of the world to talk of books and men and learning.
An essential quality of the learned then is generosity of the soul, for without it, knowledge becomes a tool for control and even oppression.
—Farzam Arbab, BA (physics) magna cum laude Amherst, 1964; PhD (elementary particle physics) University of California, Berkley, 1968: DSc (hon), Amherst, 1989. Knowledge and Civilization
1964 Classmates at 50th Reunion. Judy Bicknell photo.
Robert Frost at the Podium. Courtesy of University of Arizona Libraries, Stewart L. Udall Papers, az 372, box 105, with permission of the Robert Frost Estate.
JFK at Convocation. Courtesy of the Amherst College Archives and Speial Collections, Amherst College Library