Obama Remembers JFK At U of Michigan Commencement

On Saturday, May 1, President Obama gave the Commencement Address at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Towards the end of his talk, he turned his attention to government service and to what happened at Ann Arbor nearly 50 years ago.

Here are three short excerpts…

Participation in public life doesn’t mean that you all have to run for public office – though we could certainly use some fresh faces in Washington.  But it does mean that you should pay attention and contribute in any way that you can.  Stay informed.  Write letters, or make phone calls on behalf of an issue you care about.  If electoral politics isn’t your thing, continue the tradition so many of you started here at Michigan and find a way to serve your community and your country – an act that will help you stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the lives of those around you. 

It was fifty years ago that a young candidate for president came here to Michigan and delivered a speech that inspired one of the most successful service projects in American history.  And as John F. Kennedy described the ideals behind what would become the Peace Corps, he issued a challenge to the students who had assembled in Ann Arbor on that October night: 

“…[O]n your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country…will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.  I think it can.” 

This democracy we have is a precious thing.  For all the arguments and all the doubts and all the cynicism that’s out there today, we should never forget that as Americans, we enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than citizens in any other nation on Earth.  We are free to speak our mind and worship as we please; to choose our leaders and criticize them if they let us down.  We have the chance to get an education, work hard, and give our children a better life.


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  • Thanks, John, for this!

    The story whets the appetite for the October 14, 2010, ceremonies at the U. of Michigan commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech.

    I will be accompanying my Country Director, Dave Weinman, who was a graduate student at the time and was present at that early morning speech. He will be an honored guest of the University.

    Like so many others, Dave answered JFK’s call and was hired by Sarge and sent to Turkey as PC staff. Still active today in our “Friends of Turkey” group, Dave is an inspiration to us all.

  • I hope I have this information right. Robert Textor, author of the memo which is the foundation for the five-year rule, was involved with the planning, training, and support for Tailand I at the University of Michigan and will be there for the October 2010 celebration.

  • As one who responded to JFK and organized the student response that is one of the key factors in getting Pres. Kennedy to set up the Peace Corps, I was delighted to learn that Pres.Obama did mention the Kennedy event and did talk about public service. Indeed this is a hard time to talk of public service yet prehaps all the more important as the country needs to reinforce values of service rather than greed. We see where greed has lead us. One of the things that continued to inspire me to service was the first conference held in D.C. for returned volunteers. It might have been 1964- another hard time given the Vietnam War. But Franklin Williams and others gave inspiring talks about service. Of course Shriver never let up on this theme!
    I hope this mention by Pres. Obama means that he will still try to double the size of the Peace Corps even in the face of our economic woes. The amount of money is relatively so small. So lets keep on the campaign to increase the size and effectiveness of the Corps.
    I will be at the Oct 14th event in Ann Arbor and I look forward to seeing many people I have not seen in years. Peace Corps, my years as a graduate student and young professional in Ann Arbor, and my years in Thailand as a volunteer were so special to me.

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