John F. Kennedy came to campus on Oct. 26, 1963, to receive an honorary degree and preside over the Robert Frost Library groundbreaking. “It was a huge event in the history of the college,” says Archives & Special Collections Director Michael Kelly. “How many colleges get a sitting president to come to their groundbreaking ceremony?” In the cage, JFK gave what historians consider to be his last major speech before his assassination a month later.
Some 10,000 people came to Amherst on a crisp fall day to witness John F. Kennedy’s visit. “There is privilege here,” the president said in an address in the cage, “and with privilege goes responsibility.” The speech was unusual in its passionate support of the arts.
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist,” he said, in what turned out to be one of his last public appearances.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for Robert Frost Library, Kennedy said the poet had warned him “not to let the Harvard in me get to be too important.” In addition to Secret Service and local police, 250 state troopers guarded the president during his visit to Amherst.
“When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” Kennedy said. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
Kennedy rode in a motorcade along South Pleasant Street with Amherst President Calvin Plimpton ’39. The visit was a tribute to Robert Frost, who’d read at Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. After the poet’s death in January 1963, Kennedy adviser John J. McCloy ’16 invited the president to campus. Photo by Dick Fish ’63.
Three helicopters used Memorial Field as a landing pad. Arriving around 11:30 a.m., they carried Kennedy and his aides, as well as the presidential seal and a chair. Kennedy used the chair at the convocation in the gym. The seal was affixed to the podium.
Close to 100 members of the media and 40 members of the White House press staff covered the event. At the convocation, Kennedy and poet Archibald McLeish received honorary degrees. Edward “Ted” Plimpton, son of the Amherst president, was 11 at the time and remembers that JFK turned to him and said, “Young man, we have great hopes for you.”
Photo by Don Witkowski ’63.
“The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.”
Photo by Dick Fish ’63
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Amherst College Archives