Monday, November 21
In November of 1963 I came to Washington to say farewell to Jack Kennedy. I came here with hundreds of thousands of people, and we stood in lines that stretched for countless Washington blocks through the cold November night. We walked slowly for hours toward the Capital, and along the way we met friends and relatives, brothers and sisters whom we had never met before, whom we would never meet again.
We had come from all directions, along roads filled with hitchhikers carrying signs that said simply “Washington,” and we stopped and picked them up, carried them forward in our slow and silent and subdued tide. Through the long night, we were the American people, assembled to pay honor to our fallen leader, Jack.
The lines of mourners entered the Capitol from the east, and there were placed the flowers sent by many nations, and in their center a magnificent spray of white and yellow flowers, with a ribbon draped across it, emblazoned “From Charles DeGaulle and the People of France.” Those tributes from the nations of the world held comfort for us, consolation. The whole world mourned, and we were one with the world.
And in this somber, dark rotunda, we saw the catafalque, surrounded by the silent guards of all the services, who more stood and welcomed rather than guarded.
Each one of our heartsick and weary thousands paused a moment, in silent tribute before the bier, each in his own way realizing the hour, acknowledging the fact. Some knelt, or crossed themselves, or bowed their heads, or made some special sign of recognition, remembrance, dedication.
Five hundred thousand passed through this Capitol that night, the papers said, all with but a single thought – to say goodbye to Jack . . .
And then out into the night again, into a night just turning light with a touch of silver in the east, and that special freshness of early morning in the air.
Oh it was a grand day, that other day, that Inauguration Day in January of 1961, and everyone wondered what was going to happen, what this new thing was, this new administration, and some were pretty much worried about it.
And then Jack Kennedy spoke, and we knew what we had. We had greatness with us, a sense of greatness upon the land.
The President called upon the nation for greatness, to join him in great works, and the nation heard his call. Some of the nation did.
Some of us saw that things were working, working well, working the way we wanted them to, and we turned back, back to our own business, back to our private lives, back to our own walks and ways upon the planet, and every once in a while, we would look up, and see that things were going well, and say “Good”, and go on.
And then there came that awful day in Dallas, and the immediate sense of horror and fear and the knowing, the understanding of what had been taken from us. All the promise of the future was swept away from us by the knowledge of what might have been and now would never be. Echoing emptiness welled up in our minds like the vast galactic cold of the last night ever to come.
And we stood in lines to know what greatness was, and to grieve for a life that might have been.
The center was gone.
But out of that darkness there came the light of a far-off fire. Like the light of the morning star it gleamed and flickered and grew strong as you looked at it and into it. And it said, “Come.”
And so I left my private walk, and began to do what I had left to others to do before. I had to do it. The center had gone, and the responsibility was placed on me to do it. On all of us.
And when people ask me why I joined the Peace Corps, I reply, “Because Jack Kennedy asked me to.”
Sometimes they look startled. Had Kennedy personally asked me to do this? Well, yes. I never met the President, but yes, he personally asked me to do this. Yes, personally. That night in Washington, so long ago.
Now, Mr. President, we are here upon another night in Washington, to remember you with words, and with the memories of our deeds, works that you inspired us to do. We are here. We are steadfast. We hold to the ideals, which you called upon us to serve. Tonight we rededicate ourselves to those ideals.
The glow from that great fire that you kindled, Mr. President, still truly lights the world.
There are no farewells this time, Jack. There will never be another farewell. For you are still with us, and we are still with you, and shall be, even to the end.