Tuesday, January 18, 2011

JFK: A short beginning fifty years ago

By Jim Heffernan

The day President Kennedy took office was cold in Washington and in Duluth...

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States.

I remember the day very well, although I’m not sure I recall seeing the famous inauguration speech – “ask not what your country…” etc. -- live on TV. It’s been shown so many times since that it’s difficult to know if I saw it live or am remembering film of it. I do recall the poet Robert Frost, very old, participated, reciting a poem he wrote for the occasion, so maybe I saw it live.

It was an exciting time for my generation. The previous November I had voted for the first time, having turned 21 a month before the election. The voting age was later changed to 18. Of course I voted for Kennedy. Youthful looking and seemingly vigorous, he had captured the imaginations of many young people I knew and many around the country, although he didn’t beat Richard M. Nixon by much. But he won, that was the main thing.

I was still in college in January 1960 – I should say back in college – at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I’d dropped out for a couple of quarters and went back that January to finish my education.

My most vivid recollection of that January day is that in the afternoon I visited my barber for a haircut. Here is why I remember such a trivial thing: His shop was next door to a television repair business that had placed a television set in the window facing out that was tuned to the inaugural parade in Washington.

After my haircut, I stopped to view the parade for a few minutes – not only because of the parade but because it was the first time I’d seen color television. I marveled at it, having spent my entire TV life (about 10 years at the time) viewing black and white, and would continue in B & W for quite some time. Color was a novelty in 1960.

The TV image showed newly minted President Kennedy on the reviewing stand acknowledging the passing units with many smiles and waves. It was unseasonably cold in Washington, and he was wearing a dark topcoat. It was also cold in Duluth – January, after all – so I didn’t tarry long on the sidewalk watching the parade pass by on color television.

I had my haircut and I needed to get on with my life, and it didn’t much involve asking what I could do for my country. It mainly involved asking what I could do that night for my social life, and wondering what was going on on the weekend that would be fun.

After finishing college in 1962 I spent some time in the Army (“ask what you can do for your country…”), stationed near Washington, D.C., and saw the White House for the first time. Standing outside on Pennsylvania Avenue, I wondered if President Kennedy, my commander in chief, was inside at that moment. Who could know for sure?

Following active military service, back home I got a job as a reporter at the Duluth newspapers and in November 1963 was involved in local coverage of Kennedy’s assassination. We’d just seen him in Duluth the previous September when he spoke at UMD.

Back then it seemed like such a long time from that inauguration day to the day he died, but of course in terms of history it was an instant – just over three years. Yet in that brief time I had finished my education, served in the military and started my career. In some ways it was the most important period of my life, just as it was for President Kennedy, and, really, oh so brief a time.

Thinking back on it now, countless haircuts later, I have a better understanding of what constitutes a long time. Fifty years constitutes a long time, by any measure…other than archaeological.

Video footage of the inspirational inauguration speech given by JFK on January 20 1961 may be seen on You Tube HERE

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