This Memorial Day Monday, May 29, 2017, John F. Kennedy would have been 100 years old. Thinking of that, along with so many other events of this tumultuous year, reminds me of the powerful impact presidents may have on our lives. Certainly President Kennedy’s effect on my own life, and that of my family, has been incalculable.
It’s unfortunate that my first memory of JFK, indeed of any national event, is of his untimely death. I remember my crying mom (I had never seen that before) trying to explain the significance of what had happened; “he was my president, your president, everybody’s president.” Later, Mom rented a television so we could watch the funeral. The attendant ceremonies made quite an impression on me. For years after, I thought any military jet flyover was a tribute to JFK. The events of that week may well have sparked my unflagging interest in history, politics and ultimately the law.
But rather than linger on his death, I hope this Monday we can celebrate Kennedy’s life and his accomplishments. I'm personally grateful for 3 of them. First, he set our sights on getting to the moon and back, accelerating the exploration of space. Second, while LBJ usually gets the credit, Kennedy got the ball rolling on the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, so the Constitution was finally applied to everybody. That freed a lot of people, not just in my native South, and not just those of color. Third, even before he did either of those, on March 1, 1961, he signed an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. The idea was for young Americans to promote world peace and friendship by providing skilled training to citizens of developing countries. This visionary, very American and very cool idea, a successor to Harry Truman’s Point Four, has now been expanded to include capable adults of all ages and many other countries.
In the fall of 1981, exiting (appropriately enough) a geography class at the University of Georgia, I saw a small wall poster advertising, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,” with simple tear off forms for requesting an application for the Peace Corps. I tore off a form, sent it in, received and completed the lengthy application, and about a year later, after setbacks and false starts, was on my to the lovely, struggling West African nation of Sierra Leone. There, I worked with rice farmers as an agricultural extension agent for over 2 years, living in a small village among the proud, generous, welcoming and good humored Mende of Bagbwe Chiefdom. I ran a gamut, at times a gauntlet, of experiences, some great, some painful, many frustrating, others deeply fulfilling. Besides the Mende, I met many, many other wonderful people--Temne, Krio and other West Africans; Americans from all parts of our vast country; and expatriates from most continents. Among my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers was a lovely brown eyed Education Volunteer from Long Island who, in the fullness of time, somehow blundered into marrying me 25 years ago this past October. They say PCVs bring back more than they contribute, and I certainly am proof of that!
And you really can't beat the icing on that particular cake. That would be our daughter, now finishing her studies at Roanoke College in Virginia, and our son, himself a rising junior at Virginia Tech. The family tradition of service continues. He is an Eagle Scout and has coached special needs kids. She took a semester off to work as a political organizer and worked one summer at a small, rural school in Southeast Asia.
Presidents can, and sometimes must, make war, keep secrets, upend societal norms, challenge the boundaries of our political system. Their decisions may lead, purposefully or not, to tragedy, pain, comfort, salvation, even death. In my family’s case, our lives were made and remade, years after his death, by a president who once issued a challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
So if I could speak with President Kennedy, here’s what I’d tell him: “Sir, I want to thank you for having lived and for giving me a way to serve. As you may have heard, Peace Corps Volunteers were once referred to as ‘Kennedy's children.’ Well, sir, if that’s true, then I suppose in a way our own children are ‘Kennedy's grandchildren.’ After all, without you, they wouldn’t even be here. For your part in that, we’re eternally thankful.”
This Monday, I will gratefully remember and salute President John F. Kennedy.
B. Allen Bradford is a senior member and co-founder of Bradford, Perlstein & Associates, LLC, and is “of counsel” with James, James & Joyner. Most of his clients are emerging and entrepreneurial businesses, health care providers and other professionals. He’s also a long time and permanent student of U.S. history and politics. You can follow Allen on Twitter at: .