When the president came to Amherst College: Book and documentary film look at JFK’s historic speech in October 1963

  • President John F. Kennedy prepares to address a crowd at Amherst College on Oct. 26, 1963. Image courtesy Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

  • President Kennedy shares a laugh with poet and Amherst College professor Archibald MacLeish, at right, shortly before Kennedy’s speech at the college. Image courtesy Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

  • At his speech at Amherst College, President John. F. Kennedy praised the late poet Robert Frost and other artists for their contributions to the American spirit. Image courtesy Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

  • The day after his speech, the Amherst Student newspaper celebrated President Kennedy’s visit to the college. Image courtesy Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

  • Students and others held a civil rights vigil at Amherst College when President Kennedy visited the school in October 1963. Image courtesy Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

  • President Kennedy gives poet Robert Frost a Congressional Gold Medal in March 1962 at the White House.  Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

  • “JFK: The Last Speech” is the title of both a book and documentary film examining President John F. Kennedy’s historic speech at Amherst College in Oct. 1963.

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 14, 2019

 In late October 1963, President John F. Kennedy and a few members of his administration flew from Washington, D.C. for a quick visit to Amherst College. The young president came to help dedicate the groundbreaking for a new library named after the legendary poet Robert Frost, who had taught for years at Amherst before dying earlier that year at age 88, and who had also famously read one of his poems at Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961.

No one knew it at the time, but this was to be Kennedy’s last significant speech. Just four weeks later, an assassin took his life as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

Over the years, that speech has become an enduring part of Amherst College’s legacy, and it’s also been recognized as perhaps Kennedy’s greatest speech, in which he honored Robert Frost and also celebrated the arts as an essential part of American life.

Frost and other artists, Kennedy said, make a vital contribution “not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension.”

Those words, as well as Kennedy’s call that day for Amherst students to consider how they might serve their country, resonated in particular with many seniors — Amherst’s class of 1964. Now those graduates have paid homage to the late president, to Robert Frost, and to their school with a movie and a book that recall that memorable time.

“JFK: The Last Speech” is the title of an awarding-winning documentary and a book of essays and remembrances that chronicle not just Kennedy’s visit to Amherst but the lasting impression his words had. One of the book’s editors, Neil Bicknell, points to one example of that: He says five percent of the members of the class of 1964 joined the Peace Corps, the overseas service organization Kennedy had initiated in 1961.

“He inspired a lot of people,” Bicknell, a member of the class of 1964, said during a recent phone call from his home in Boulder, Colorado. 

Bicknell, the executive producer of the documentary on Kennedy’s visit to Amherst, did not have a chance to hear the president’s main speech in the college gymnasium. But he did get to see him and hear his shorter remarks at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Frost Library.

“He was an impressive figure,” Bicknell recalled. “He really carried himself like a strong leader.”

As one of Bicknell’s classmates, Roger Mills, says in the documentary film, “the air just crackled” as Kennedy walked by to take his seat at the dais in the Amherst gym before his speech.

The idea of commemorating Kennedy’s visit and speech came up when the Reunion Committee of the class of 1964 started thinking about how they would mark the 50th anniversary of their graduation, Bicknell said. He notes that he and other classmates were struck by the gridlock and dysfunctional partisanship in Washington, D.C. today and how poorly it compares to the optimism and progressive spirit that seemed to animate the years of the Kennedy administration.

By bringing renewed attention to Kennedy’s speech at Amherst, his relationship with Robert Frost, and his evocation of the value of the liberal arts, Bicknell says the Amherst class of 1964 hopes to introduce a new generation of students and others to this moment — and hopefully to share some of Kennedy’s “can-do” spirit.

“We think it’s a message that still resonates,” said Bicknell.


A dramatic visit

The documentary “JFK: The Last Speech,” by Boston-based Northern Light Productions, mixes archival footage of Kennedy’s speech at Amherst College with interviews with graduates who took the president’s message of service to heart, such as Ted Nelson, who worked in rural Turkey as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1964 to 1968.

The film, which Bicknell says has aired on PBS stations across the country and was named best documentary at the 2018 New Jersey Film Festival, also includes interviews with historians who help put Kennedy’s speech in context: that it was almost unheard of for an American president to speak at length about the importance of the arts.

The companion book to “JFK: The Last Speech” explores these themes in greater depth, with first-person essays and observations from numerous former students and a host of other writers: presidential historian Jon Meacham, Robert Frost biographer Jay Parini, writer and former congressman Mickey Edwards and Amherst College President Biddy Martin.

Martin, for instance, offers a remarkable story of how she became enamored of Kennedy as a young schoolgirl in rural Virginia, where “Kennedy-lover” was an epithet and her father, like many Southern Democrats at that time, became a Republican, in part because of the Democrats’ efforts to end segregation in the South.

“Idealizing Kennedy and, in particular, the Kennedy of his speeches, became a sign and a means of differentiation from my family,” Martin writes.

The book also relates how Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 sent shock waves across the campus — and how Amherst President Calvin Plimpton addressed the school later that evening at Johnson Chapel to urge students, faculty and staff alike to honor the president with a moment of silence and then “go do the work he couldn’t complete.”

In addition, both the film and the book explore an episode not well known today: how the friendship between Kennedy and Robert Frost, dating back to the days when Kennedy first ran for president, turned cold in early fall 1962 after Frost returned from a visit to the Soviet Union and a lengthy talk about cultural exchange with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Frost, jet-lagged and suffering from a cold when he returned to the U.S., gave a somewhat confused interview in which he said Khrushchev had claimed the U.S. “was too liberal to fight,” remarks that angered Kennedy, causing him to cut off contact with the poet. Just a month later, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, and the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

Yet as the book makes clear, Kennedy buried the hatchet when he came to Amherst, praising Frost’s poetry and his contribution to the American spirit; he was an artist who “saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself,” Kennedy said.

The president also told Amherst students that, given the benefits they enjoyed in attending an elite private college in a country that had great disparities in wealth, he hoped they would put their education toward some kind of public service “and I’m confident you will respond.”

Looking back, Roger Mills, a co-editor of the book, says that’s the part of Kennedy’s speech that stayed with him. He became a cardiologist but also spent much of his career teaching medicine, mentoring younger doctors and working in different capacities for others.

The speech “made me conscious that it was important to have a career that wasn’t just about putting yourself first,” Mills said in a telephone call from his home near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

And in the end, Mills says he hopes the documentary and the book won’t just be viewed as a snapshot of the past, but as means of seeing how the things Kennedy talked about during his visit to Amherst “apply to our lives today … across the political spectrum.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

To view a trailer of the film “JFK: The Last Speech,” go to jfkthelastspeech.org/the-film/