Nov 18, 2013
JFK at Choate: A Lasting Legacy 50 Years After Assassination
Although it's been 50 years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and more than 75 since the 35th President of the United States attended Wallingford's Choate Rosemary Hall (known then just as Choate), his presence is still strong on campus.
In addition to memorials like the John F. Kennedy group study room in the library, which is stocked with hundreds of books about Kennedy, there are plenty of reminders that the future president was an active member of the Class of 1935, including pictures, posters that illustrate him as a student and an alumnus, his class yearbook (of which he was business manager) and copies of the school newspaper. Also hanging on campus is a portrait of Kennedy, unique in that it was painted in 1963 while he was president, an unusual occurrence.
But as the official anniversary of the assassination is observed this Friday, the school has used the opportunity to teach about Kennedy. John F. Kennedy '35: A Living Legacy is a multifaceted approach to honor the president's memory and time at Choate, and his calls to public service and social change. It has included special student-only exhibitions and events on campus. According to a press release, on Friday, Nov. 22, the school's recent Service Day—held in conjunction with Kids Against Hunger—will be featured on the JFK Presidential Library and Museum as part of the video series "An Idea Lives On."
Such a public service-themed approach dovetails well with the Kennedy-Choate connection.
"Kennedy came back to campus three times, and also sent a recorded message on a fourth occasion, which was the unveiling of his portrait in May of 1963, and every time, his message to the faculty, to alums and indeed, to the students was 'Get involved. Get involved in public affairs, get involved in politics; it's your responsibility,'" says Choate archivist Judy Donald. "That message has had a lasting effect on this campus."
In his recorded remarks for the portrait (at right), Kennedy fondly recalled his "valuable years" at Choate and talked about the school's "significant role in American education." He also spoke of the "special obligation" that its students have to "justify the special opportunity" afforded them by attending the school, and how they had to prepare for public service. "The inheritance of wealth creates responsibilities," he said, and he lauded Choate for continuing to teach "the high ideals of public service and public responsibility."
If current Choate students feel intimidated by Kennedy's imposing legacy, they should be comforted by the fact that the future president wasn't exactly at the top of his class during his time at the school.
"He was not an outstanding academic superstar, but he wasn't about to flunk out, either," says Donald, who notes that Kennedy suffered from serious health problems while attending the school, spending extended time in the school infirmary. "He worked hard at subjects he liked, and subjects that were less appealing to him, he wasn't as good a student as he could've been. Like many adolescents, he was not living up to his potential, and his teachers would comment on that. But what he liked, he liked, and did well in, like history. In the scheme of things, he would've been a fair to middling student."
Kennedy was popular—he was voted "Most Likely to Succeed" by his graduating classmates—and was also active in campus activities. His first two years, he played football, basketball and baseball, but as he continued to have serious health issues, that participation suffered. "The contact sports—he just wasn't able to do that," says Donald. "He just wasn't a strong, robust young man, like his older brother Joe, who was a football star on campus. He did what could. He was very competitive, obviously. You saw that in his later life as well, even if it was just touch football or sailing."
Though Choate is still marked by Kennedy's presence, Kennedy was marked by the school. "Choate gave him an academic grounding, as it does for anyone who spends four years here," says Donald. "It also gave him some lifelong friends, not just Lem Billings, who was his roommate for a couple of years, but others. He maintained those friendships for years as well as respect for the faculty and some of his teachers."
It also has been suggested that one of Kennedy's most enduring messages—"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," delivered during his January 1961 inaugural address—may have been inspired during his time at Choate.
"George St. John was Kennedy's headmaster here," says Donald. "Many alums recall St. John occasionally during regular chapel services, which were daily, exhorting his boys to ask not what their school could do for them, but what they could for their school. So then these alums would say, 'Well, that's the source of the famous line from Kennedy's inaugural address.'"
But those anecdotal stories weren't enough evidence for Donald. "I could never find that phrase written down in any of George St. John's sermons, which we have the printed copies, and they were published in the school newspaper as well. No documentary evidence at all, and other alums had no recollection of it," she says.
One day, however, she discovered George St. John's notebooks where he collected inspiration for all the sermons he had to give. "And there on page one of the notebook labeled 'Prose' there was an excerpt of an essay written by Dean LeBaron Briggs of Harvard, whom St. John had admired," recalls Donald. "And in that essay was this line: 'Ask not what your alma mater can do for you, but what you can do for your alma mater.' So that at least, for me, provided a closer link that George might've said that."
Even with that discovery, Donald isn't necessarily convinced that it means it was the actual source of the quote, noting that others beyond LeBaron Biggs—such as Oliver Wendall Holmes—have used variations of it.
Still, it doesn't diminish the Kennedy-Choate connection.
"I find it quite interesting that Kennedy stayed close with the school even though he might have had a rocky relationship with the headmaster," says Donald, referring to stories about how Kennedy and some mischief-making friends "founded" the "Muckers' Club" after a perturbed Headmaster St. John referred to those perpetrating on-campus pranks as "muckers." "It all worked in the end and Kennedy did receive his diploma, along with his friends, and one might think he'd say, 'Okay, well, I've moved on—I've been to war, I've been to college, I've made my way . . .' But the fact that he came back to campus three times and kept this connections here, I just find all that remarkable. He maintained his connections to this place, so it had to have meant something special to him."