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I have just returned from yet another “pilgrimage” to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. This time is was to commemorate an event that has shocked and traumatized a nation and I think has not recovered since. The event was the death of the young, vibrant,  inspirational, and unforgettable 35th President of the United States: John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

It has been exactly fifty years to the day when a bright beacon of hope became extinguished and the face of the nation was changed forever. Yet he remains a fascination to scholars and lay persons alike and those who still remember him as the brilliant and confident ruler who reigned for a little more than one thousand days. I know that it is strange for me to write of him in those terms, especially since I was not born until twenty-three years after he was gone. I never lived through his brief tenure as leader of the free world. I have no living memories of his memorable and iconic speeches and yet I am fascinated by him and awed by his brilliance. So much so that I would go and visit the library and museum named in his honor, especially on this day. I knew that I had to be there among those who remember him still and for those born after the events who still appreciate what we have lost. .

I went there early by train and spent almost the entire late morning and afternoon there. The library had expected a large surge of people commemorating the event there and I was determined to be one of them. I arrived sometime before 10:00 in the morning and signed the guest book. Afterwards, I went to the area where people were sitting and watching video of a montage of still and film footage highlighting the ceremonial events leading up to the funeral of President Kennedy on November 25, 1963 (The video is online and is entitled “A Nation Remembers: November 23-25, 1963”). Some who have lived through these events took out handkerchiefs and tissues and wiped the tears from their eyes. It was a room full of sadness and remembering.

Also in the room where artifacts on display from the state funeral on November 25th of that year. Among them was a black saddle with black riderless boots placed in reverse in the stirrups indicating that the rider had fallen. This was mounted upon a horse named Black Jack, following the caisson which bore the coffin containing the late president in the the funeral procession which was modelled after that of another martyred president: Abraham Lincoln. Also on display was Green Beret hat that had been placed on President Kennedy’s grave by Command Sergeant Major Francis Ruddy on the day of the burial. I remember most vividly that flag that draped President Kennedy's coffin, carefully folded into the shape of a tri-cornered hat by enlisted soldiers, and presented to Mrs. Kennedy on that sad and mournful day. These items were on display for the first time and would remain so until March 30, 2014.

I went into the museum to re-emerge myself into the era of Camelot and to more fully appreciate the times in which he lived and presided over. At 1:30pm, a special musical tribute would be performed at the Pavilion called “A Nation Remembers: A Tribute to President John F. Kennedy,” with musical guest such as Award-winning singer-songwriter James Taylor; award-winning saxophonist Paul Winter and the Paul Winter Sextext; and the United States Naval Academy Women’s Glee Club. The musical guests would be joined by the Deval Patrick, the incumbent Governor of Massachusetts; Elaine Jones, director-counsel emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and whom I had seen two months and thirty-five days before at the JFK Library; Chris Cassidy a NASA Astronaut and US Naval Commander, Navy SEAL; Richard Blanco, the poet for the second presidential inauguration of Barack Obama; and a young girl named Sarah Groustra who an an 8th grade student from the Edward Devotion School in Brookline just 5.6 miles away. Coincidentally, it was the same school Kennedy attended as a boy. All of these notable guests would read excerpts from some of most memorable and historic speeches made by President Kennedy during his tenure in office. This would be the highlight of the day's events.

There would be no physical audience allowed at the Pavilion so we had to view it via satellite at Smith Center, which I didn't mind. I made my way to Smith Center via elevator and found a seat near the front even though it was crowded. I was told that some people had to be turned away because there was no room for entry into the building. We were shown a brief video about the Profiles in Courage Award and then we saw the musical tribute performed via satellite on a large screen. After it was done, I made my way to the JFK Cafe and as it was reopening and and as a curtain removed at the staircase leading to the Pavilion. I stood a chair and took a gratified view overlooking the notable guests as they posed together for a group picture. Afterwards, I went in to JFK Cafe and after eating a small lunch, I went to the JFK Library store to browse through the items. I wanted to buy something in commemoration of the event and after some deliberation I bought a hardcover copy of “JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President” by Thurston Clarke. After this, I took the shuttle bus which took me back to JFK/UMass Station and from there, I returned to South Station and then home, where I am now typing this brief memoir of the day's events.

As I reflect on the day's events and find myself thinking about John F. Kennedy, I am wondering why since I never knew him, why I made the trip to Boston to remember that he lived. While the rest of the country is engaged in discussion about his tragic death, I think it would be more appropriate to concentrate on his unfinished life. Born into wealth and privilege in 1917, had numerous health problems growing up, served in the military during the second world war, ran for congress, senate, and president with no political defeat (except one in 1956), served in the highest office for almost three years, and is suddenly gone. Why do we love him so? Why do we admire him still after fifty years? Why is he so captivating long after he was taken at the age of forty-six?

Twenty-nine days before, I had attended another forum at the John F. Kennedy Library discussing his legacy and renowned historian Robert Dallek, the author of "A Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963" and "Camelot's Court: Inside The Kennedy White House", gave this assessment. “As I watch these films,” he said in reference to the American Experience documentary on the life of the 35th President which aired ten days ago, “what I'm struck by is how frozen he is in our minds at the age of 46. Nobody can imagine that he'd be 96 years old today. And it's not as if he looks like some 19th century figure with a high collar; he's one of us. He still looks like us, looks like he's part of our culture. I can go on and on about the fact that he has an 85% approval rating and 1,000-day Presidency. How does one account for that? I think it has to do with the Presidents who succeeded him - Johnson in Vietnam, Nixon in Watergate, the two Bushes about whom people were not happy, Ford, Carter. Kennedy is the one who still gives people hope. He's an inspirational voice. People see him as promising a better day for America.”

That assessment is better than anything that I could have expressed here. When I think of Kennedy, I think of the young and vibrant president smiling and waving to the crowds who wanted to catch a glimpse of him as I have seen in archival footage of him, shaking their hands as he makes his way to either make a speech or on the way back to Air Force One for his return to Washington. To me, he seems so heroic, full of vitality, vigor, and inspiration. He is still an inspirational voice to those who want to believe in heroes again. His speeches are memorable and often quotable. So many people want to emulate him, speak like him, act like him, and inspire others as he did. I must admit that when I was a college student, I studied his mannerism and cadence because for a time, I wanted to be a public servant and tried to emulate his cadence whenever I had to make a public discourse. If I can paraphrase from Historian Timothy Naftali, He is remembered for having setup so much in motion throughout his short time in office. He is also remembered for keeping America from the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It is remarkable to see how he was to keep cool under all that pressure from so many people pushing him in different directions that he eventually decided to take a peaceful route in order to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

He is primarily remembered for giving America a sense of obligation. With his iconic phrase delivered at his inauguration,  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he gave in his call to action, inspiration for all of his fellow countrymen to become active to serve their capacity to make America strong and great. He challenged us not only to do better, but to be better. He called all people who heard his voice to be committed to preserving freedom even during times of strife in what he called “the hour of maximum danger.”  Although there is an eternal visible flame which burns in Arlington National Cemetery, with his immortal words, he ignited a flame that from that time has not been extinguished “and the glow from that fire will truly light the world.”  Indeed it has. People are still serving as soldiers defending civilians abroad, teachers instructing students in classrooms, public servants working law courts and town halls, and so much more. He made us believe that we could do it and from Kennedy's day to ours, people still believe. Yes, he is gone and yet he is still here. “A man may die,” Kennedy once said, “nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." His words survive as a testament to hope. Even though the word “hope” has become a form of cliché and is seen as a byword for blind optimism, hope is what we need to give us the strength to make it through the day and we still hold on to that promise. He is loved today because gave America a sense of hope. He gave this country a sense that better days are still to come and that we can expect and look forward to a brighter future. He still appeals to us because we want to feel that our country still has a future.

Even though there maybe some controversies surrounding him, Kennedy is still widely loved by the public and remembered fondly by those of living memory. Soon those living memories will become history and there are still those yet unborn who may never fully appreciate what he stood for and what he gave of himself to do the job he was elected to do in 1960. The final words in the American Experience film “JFK” were spoken by Harris Wofford, who knew and was an advisor to President Kennedy. In it he said, “We will never know whether he would have been a great president. I'd bet on him, but we didn't have that chance.” He is right. We didn't have that chance. Those of us who were not yet born didn't have that chance of experiencing those 1,036 days of the Kennedy White House. If there is anyone who does want to understand what we had, I can strongly recommend that they can pay a visit to the presidential library and museum which bears the name and preserves the legacy of the man who kept us out of nuclear war, inspired us with the eloquence of his words, and sought restore hope in the hearts of all people throughout the world. May we never forget the name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.



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