Remembering JFK and His Challenge to Us

by Diana Rankin

Photo portrait of John F. Kennedy, President o...
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John Fitzgerald Kennedy challenged us as a nation, a world, and as individuals. He challenged us to serve our country in the cause of peace by helping other nations and he challenged other nations to “1explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” He challenged us to look to the future and to create a strong world and a peaceful nation, undivided where all are treated with respect and equality. I wonder if we have met his challenge.

When he came to be our nation’s president on January 20, 1961, I was 15, as fresh and innocent as the promise that came with his inauguration. I sat in front of the black and white television, the screen smaller than that of today’s computers, with my mother and older brother in our home in Dayton, Ohio. My family, staunch Republicans, were certain the about-to-be new Catholic President would lead our country into ruin. Any doubts I harbored vanished as he stood before the nation—and the world—and announced: “1A torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

A light breeze ruffled his thick hair on a day so cold white air breathed out with his words. He was hatless and coatless on this cold, but sunny, day, and the nation took notice. It was the ending of an era when only men with white hair and top hats and heavy coats could hold the highest office in our nation. JFK was ushering in an era of renewed hope, a time of being our brothers’ keeper, and greater awareness of a world beyond our borders. I felt a personal call to service as his words wound into me when he spoke those most famous lines from his inaugural speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

He could ask this of us, World War II hero that he was. He had earned the right, and we listened and we acted. I did not join the Peace Corps that he initiated or get involved in the Circle Rights Movement. None of my close friends did either, but we did feel the effect of JFK on our young lives, and those effects would echo throughout our lives as we became teachers and social workers, soup kitchen attendants and organizers of non-profit community-based businesses, and writers—and righters—of social ills. And then it was lost, lost in the violence of the peace movement against the Vietnam War and the anger of the Women’s Movement; lost in the me, me, me of the 1980s and the self-indulgence of the 1990s; lost in the greed of the new millennium and the political mudslinging and dividedness of the last several years. Lost.

I live in rural Ohio now, returning here in my middle years after having spent my twenties and thirties in Southern California. I sit in The Depot, a coffee house in Urbana, less than a mile from the campus where I teach part time. Young students often come here to study. One sits near me now. “Are you a teacher?” she asks. “I saw you working on the computer.”

“Yes,” I say, and then add, “It’s an article on my memories of President Kennedy.”

“He did a lot of good things,” she says. “He started the Peace Corps. She goes on to tell me she plans on joining the Peace Corps as soon as she graduates. She’s in environmental science and currently engaged in women’s studies, she explains, and she’s not sure how she’ll combine them along with her love of writing.

“You’ll find a way,” I tell her, and I feel a sense of hope, renewal, and continuation on this cold, sunny day in January when you can see your own breath on the wind and hear the echo of history on the horizon.

“Thank you,” I add. She looks at me questioning. “For your service to this nation and to all people,” I say. I think it is what he would have told her.

© 2011 Diana Rankin



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