Neil Bicknell ’64 was a small-town boy with a big opportunity. Having grown up in tiny Lincoln, Vt., the grandson of the general store’s owner and manager, he made his way down to Amherst College—which is where he found himself on Oct. 26, 1963, listening to President John F. Kennedy give a soaring speech that started out in honor of poet Robert Frost but ended up inspiring Bicknell to use his big opportunity to give something back. Bicknell knows he’s not the only member of the class of ’64 who was affected by that speech. He knows this because more than 50 years later, he asked them—and then made a film about it: JFK: The Last Speech.
Bicknell and other reunion organizers wanted to get ’64 classmates involved in lively discussion before they convened in 2014. “We organized three teams to solve three major problems: our education system, environmental issues and problems with our democracy. In our spare time!” As time went by, an overarching theme emerged. It turned out that, for Amherst students who graduated in 1964, the question of solving major problems had become inextricably linked with a certain president’s rhetoric. Everyone remembered that speech, and that speech was a game-changer.
Consider Roger Mills, Bicknell’s classmate and a collaborator on the film, who described his younger self as “not deeply into the political scene.” He wasn’t going to miss the president’s speech, though—nor was anyone else. “It was packed. Standing room only. And there were people outside, too,” he recalls. The speech began slowly. But then the president started doing what he was known for doing so well: “He was speaking about the responsibility of people who have been privileged—not necessarily financially, but privileged to have a first-rate liberal-arts education.” Mills and his classmates knew he was calling upon them. “The speech wasn’t political, wasn’t about foreign relations or taxes or anything; it was about the moral responsibility that well-educated young people have to become civically engaged—and about the dynamic tension between the arts and political power.”
Would that speech have had the same impact if the president had not been assassinated weeks later? Just as surely as everyone in that room remembers the speech, they all remember that dark November day, too. Amherst President Calvin Plimpton ’39 spoke to students that afternoon, saying, “Let us stand a moment in silence, to honor him, and then let us go do the work he couldn’t complete.” Five percent of the class of ’64 joined the Peace Corps after commencement.
“When we started this film, we didn’t know just what the focus would be,” Bicknell admits. The film focuses on Kennedy, but in a deeper sense, it is centered on Robert Frost—one of the best examples of the dynamic tension between politics and the arts. “Frost talks in his writings about the four beliefs, and one of those beliefs is the belief in creativity. He makes the point that a poem starts with emotion and ends with wisdom,” Bicknell muses.
The same might be said for those young students listening to that young president on that fall day. Their emotions were roused; over the years, they gained the wisdom that comes with work and, of course, time. “Frost says if there’s no discovery for the writer, there’s no discovery for the reader. It’s the same, I think, with any creative piece,” Bicknell says. “That’s what happened with the film. You start with a belief that there’s something there, and as you work through it, you discover what it is.”
JFK: The Last Speech — Executive-produced by Neil Bicknell ’64, with associate producers (all class of ’64) Robert Benedetti, Roger Mills, Stephen Smith II, Charles Stover III and Richard Sparks
Companion book edited by Bicknell, Mills and Jan Worth-Nelson (wife of Ted Nelson ’64)
Northern Light Productions
On public television starting June 2018; also on DVD
More about the project: jfkthelastspeech.org
Shulman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Yankee Magazine and many other publications.