JFK: One thing he did for his country

JimCoffinBy James Coffin

Fifty years ago, on Nov. 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a Friday. My 12th birthday.

My parents had let me invite five friends home for the weekend. We were going to ride our horses down to the woods and play some serious “Cowboys and Indians.” I couldn’t wait for school to end so the fun could begin.

Ten minutes before dismissal, the door to our little two-room country school burst open. “President Kennedy has been assassinated!” Tears streamed down the cheeks of my best friend’s grandmother as she sobbed out the terrible news. “I just heard it on the car radio!”

In a way rarely replicated, that moment has remained indelibly stamped on my brain. I’ve never celebrated my birthday without thinking of that classroom scene.

As our nation’s youngest elected President, JFK was a symbol of youthfulness and adventure. I knew all about his World War II heroism after a Japanese destroyer cut his PT boat in half in the South Pacific. I’d read about his impressive swims from island to island, trying to effect rescue for his men.

It seemed only natural that, once in the White House, he championed physical fitness, especially for the youth. Although it was Lyndon Johnson who actually created the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, my struggle to attain it while in high school was motivated by the late President Kennedy. And in my failure to qualify for the award, it was President Kennedy who I felt I’d let down.

Although I was only 9 when Kennedy took the oath of office, the challenge in his inaugural speech–“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”–stuck with me. And when I took a year’s break from college to work as a volunteer in Mexico, it was in part a tribute to his exhortation to serve others.

Like all humans, JFK was flawed. We know it a lot more now than we knew it at the time. Especially those of us who were young. But those flaws notwithstanding, John Fitzgerald Kennedy embodied the kind of inspiration we don’t encounter often.

My wish would be that every youth today would somehow, somewhere, acquire the kind of inspirational memories that this just-turned-62-year-old has because of JFK.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.