President John F. Kennedy addressing Congress on May 25, 1961 on reaching the Moon within the decade. Credit: NASA
In the Fall of 1963, I was in third grade. On that Friday afternoon, my class first heard the principal's announcement that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Being in Catholic school, we immediately began saying Hail Marys. Shortly after, came the announcement that the President had died, more prayers and my teacher, Sr. Mary Alphonse, saying that we would see this event in our history books.
President Kennedy's Administration made history with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the partial nuclear test ban treaty, the Peace Corps, civil rights and, of course, the reach for the Moon.
Like any historical figure, Kennedy was a complex person in turbulent times. We later learned of the extent of his medical problems and of his personal moral flaws. At the same time, he showed the leadership skills to inspire American citizens to aspire to public service either formally, by entering government, or by in whatever way asking "what you can do for your country".
The world was in a tense situation with the Cold War at that time. However the nation's recent experience in winning World War II, the post-war prosperity, the growing attention to civil rights for all Americans, and the dawning of the Space Age combined to generate a "can-do" spirit in society. This spirit of the time enabled JFK to ascend to leadership as much as his leadership helped further that spirit.
We can only speculate what would have occurred had there been no shooting in Dallas and JFK had completed one or two terms as president. In the tensions of our present day, may we not forget that crises can bring forth leadership that can find opportunities for accomplishment. May we never forget that our future as a nation and as human civilization depends on adhering to or recapturing the fundamental values of faith, life, liberty and human dignity that have enabled our advancement so far.
Finally, the sudden death of a young leader fifty years ago reminds us of the fleetingness and uncertainty of our temporal lives. May we be always mindful of the eternal things promised by God when our time of faithfully living each of our temporal lives comes to an end.