I was only 10 years old on Friday, January 20, 1961. In my classroom at Marymount Elementary School a miracle was unfolding. Instead of going over math homework, my fifth grade teacher instructed the class to put away our papers and pencils and sit at attention with our hands folded on our desks.
Sister Loretta’s long full skirt skimmed across the linoleum floor swooshing in a nervous flutter as she brought a shoe-box-sized radio from a cabinet and plugged it in. A man’s voice laced with static sputtered from atop the teacher’s desk. The good nun dialed in for better reception. My classmates and I sat up straight in our wooden desks, quiet, waiting.
Chief Justice Earl Warren administered the oath of office to the 35th president of the United States and we leaned forward to listen as John Fitzgerald Kennedy repeated the oath in his peculiar Boston accent. His acceptance speech that day is considered one of the best speeches of all time. “We observe today not a victory of party,” he began, “but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning — signifying renewal, as well as change.” The president’s carefully chosen words filled our classroom with inspiration.
Later I watched the speech at home with my parents on our black and white TV. The president looked straight at us and said that the torch had now been passed to us, “a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”
My father, an immigrant who had escaped war-torn Yugoslavia, was moved to tears that night. My father was a naturalized citizen with unwavering loyalty to the U.S. and a belief that America was greater than all other nations combined, but there was room for improvement. He saw JFK as champion of the underdog. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich,” the president said. My father hung on every word as, I’m sure, many Americans did.
The words I’d heard in my classroom earlier in the day were repeated in my living room that night. The TV pundits analyzed and dissected the message, but for the average citizen the meaning was clear: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” The phrase was etched into history that day. Everyone knew what it meant. It was time to step up and do your part to make your community, your country, your world and your universe a better place to live. It was time to end the “struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Even a 10-year-old sensed that the bar had been raised and the expectations were lofty. These would not be ordinary times. We had an intelligent, handsome, young statesman for a president, complemented by a first lady who was the epitome of elegance and style, and those of us lucky enough to be born in this generation were being asked to respond to a higher calling. The president empowered and challenged us to make a difference. The winds of change were at our backs and the gates of Camelot swung open.