JFK:The Last Speech
by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78)
EVEN 55 YEARS LATER, the life-changing effects of John F. Kennedy and Peace Corps service continue to resonate for several former Volunteers featured in an upcoming documentary distributed by American Public Television. The film, JFK: The Last Speech, from Northern Light Productions, spotlights how an October, 1963, a visit by JFK transformed four Class of ’64 graduates of Amherst College. The film will air on more than 40 public television stations nationwide the first week of June.
About the speech
Three weeks before President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, he delivered a speech at Amherst at the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library. Frost had been a professor at Amherst for years, was a colorful presence on the campus, and had died the previous January.
It was JFK’s last major speech, and it was described as “majestic” and one of his best. The film JFK: The Last Speech, captures his address, which emphasized Kennedy’s belief in service to the country and the importance of the arts. It also delves into Kennedy’s relationship with Frost, who had read a poem, “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration, and who had later made a controversial visit to Russia during Kennedy’s presidency.
The film project
The movie project was hatched at the 50th reunion of the Amherst Class of ’64, where the alums wanted to produce something of value beyond nostalgia. A theme of “The World We Inherited, The World We Will Bequeath,” emerged, and from that, reflections on JFK’s momentous visit to the campus and the impact of his speech became their focus.
They proceeded to form a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, Reunion ’64, Inc., to raise money for the project. They began working with Northern Light Productions soon thereafter.
During their research, the Amherst project committee learned that 12 members of the Amherst Class of ’64 — five percent of the class — ended up in Peace Corps service. They are:
- Doug Bray, Turkey 1964–66;
- Stephen Downs, India, 1964–66;
- Pat DeLeon, Training Center, Hawai’i, 1969–70;
- Peter Easton, Niger, 1964–67;
- Christopher Gray, Nigeria,1964–66;
- Norman Groetzinger, India, 1966–68;
- John Keffer, Panama, 1966–69;
- Carl Levine, Brazil, 1968–70;
- Ted Nelson, Turkey, 1964–67;
- Arthur Schoepfer, Kenya, 1964–66;
- Richard Sparks, Nigeria, 1964–66;
- Richard Stauffer, Jr., site unknown, 1964–65, service unverified; and
- Charles Stover, Niger, 1964–66.
The Amherst team also developed a website, jfkthelastspeech.org. A companion book JFK: The Last Speech is scheduled for publication in July.
The film project has been shepherded by Neil Bicknell of Boulder, Colorado. Bicknell, one of the Amherst Class of ’64, is the film’s executive producer and a former investment banker. Like many of the Amherst ’64 grads, he is a lifelong student of both JFK’s leadership and Frost’s life and work.
The film has been picked up by stations covering about 27 percent of the U.S. so far, according to the film’s publicist. It is scheduled the first week of June in Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Tucson, Washington, D.C and many more.
In addition to funds contributed by Reunion ’64, the film received financial support from Amherst College, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and many individual donors.
Among the four Amherst students featured in JFK: The Last Speech, were Ted Nelson, Turkey 5, who served from 1964 to 1966, and Stephen Downs, who served in India 8, from 1964 to 1966.
Nelson, a senior at the elite, then-all-male, East Coast college, was present at the groundbreaking. He was raised in Brunswick, Maine and Natick, Massachusetts, came from a poor family and went to Amherst on a full scholarship. He recalls he often felt out of place, but says the liberal arts education he received was a major gift to his life.
After Kennedy’s speech and the groundbreaking, JFK went through the audience and stopped at a small group of students, including Nelson. He shook hands with them and asked the young men what they planned to do after graduation.
As Nelson relates in the film, after the young men detailed their plans for graduate school, medical school, law school, and so on, JFK stopped them all and said, “No, no, you’re not — you’re all going to join the Peace Corps.”
Nelson said the young men, some of whom barely knew what the Peace Corps was, laughed, and JFK went on his way.
But when Nelson learned about the assassination three weeks later, he in fact did decide to join the Peace Corps. Less than a month after graduation, he began Peace Corps training that took him to Turkey for three and a half years. There he worked on a water project, attempting to cap contaminated wells contributing to severe infant mortality.
Last year a three-person film crew from Northern Light, the Boston production company, came to Flint, MI, where Nelson now lives, for three days to document his life. They cast a particular eye on the Flint water crisis and the local community news publication East Village Magazine, for which Nelson is editor-at-large.
The Flint segment of the film includes a visit to a water pipe replacement project, an interview on a local talk show, a community meeting about the water crisis, several shots of the East Village Magazine office, a stop at a water delivery station and an interview with Nelson filmed in his home.
Nelson, 76, who became a full-time Flint resident last year after 17 years of commuting from Los Angeles, said he finds it ironic 50 years later he now lives and works in an American city with its own water problems.
He says being part of the Amherst project has been a significant experience of “coming full circle” and reflecting on his life accomplishments and values.
A bonus of the project for Nelson occurred at the premier of the documentary at the JFK Library in Boston on May 6.
There he reunited for the first time with his high school English teacher, Patricia Hope Edmonds, now 86, who had encouraged his writing, urged him to go on to college and whose husband George, an Amherst alum, wrote Ted a letter of recommendation.
In India, Stephen Downs was assigned to the Punjab, now Himachal Pradesh, to teach teachers how to engage in extra-curricular youth work. His additional self-taught specialty was beekeeping and teaching science fairs to teachers
After Peace Corps, he spent most of his career as the chief attorney with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct disciplining bad judges.
The film crew visited Downs, now 75, in Albany NY, documenting his work as a retired attorney volunteering legal assistance to support and free hundreds of Muslims wrongfully convicted of terrorism.
Other Amherst students
Many other Amherst students present at JFK’s speech that day were similarly influenced. In addition to Nelson and Downs, the film features a rancher and philanthropist who provides resources for students on a Montana reservation to experience art; and a journalist who has spent his lifetime covering strife in El Salvador.
RPCV Richard “Rip” Sparks (Nigeria 1964–66), former research director of the National Great River Research and Education Center, and director of the Illinois Water Resource Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is one of the associate producers of the film and has been an active participant in its development, along with writing a timeline for the companion book and website.
As Rip wrote me, “I wanted to describe how John F. Kennedy inspired my generation and led me to a life-changing experience in the Peace Corps. I especially wanted to let my children and their contemporaries know that choosing leaders in our democracy is hugely consequential. When 9/11 happened, some of my kids’ friends jumped into a car in Wisconsin and drove straight through to New York City expecting that they could donate blood or help remove debris and find survivors. Sadly, there was nothing they could do. When President Bush arrived on the scene and was asked what Americans could do, he responded by saying they could go shopping. I suppose the point was to demonstrate that our consumer economy and confidence were intact, but what an opportunity was lost to inspire and enlist my daughters’ generation in an expansion of national service — in the Peace Corps, the foreign service, and yes, in the military, too.”
JFK: The Last Speech — the book
The book’s introduction, co-written by Nelson, Roger Mills — a retired cardiologist, and the Reunion ’64, Inc. committee, reflects on “the relevance and haunting irony that JFK’s words bring to the problems of the present. “When civic culture is fractured and the value of the liberal arts is questioned,” they write, “this message from 1963 has particular resonance.”
Jan Worth-Nelson, Tonga 1976-78, is editor of East Village Magazine in Flint, and is Ted Nelson’s wife. The two met during her Peace Corps service in Tonga when Nelson was on a training assignment from Peace Corp/Washington. Worth can be reached at email@example.com. She is co-editor with Roger Mills and Neil Bicknell of the film’s companion book, JFK: The Last Speech, coming out from Mascot Books.