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The President and the Poet

John F. Kennedy at Amherst, October 26, 1963

By Daria D'Arienzo

In fall 2003, the Archives and Special Collections mounted an exhibition of images and artifacts from Kennedy's 1963 visit. An online version also can be viewed [This web page is not currently available]. Additional materials from the collection appeared in Amherst Magazine (Fall/Winter 2003-2004).

 

October 26, 2003, marked the 40th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Amherst College. It was also the day the College’s 18th President, Anthony W. Marx, was inaugurated, 40 years to the day after Kennedy’s visit.

Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy & Archibald MacLeish at Amherst College in 1963.

Kennedy came at the invitation of Chairman of the Board of Trustees John J. McCloy ’16 for a convocation in his honor on the occasion of the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library. The President’s remarks at the convocation and groundbreaking were a tribute to Robert Frost and to the power and significance of poetry and art in the world. Kennedy was, in the words of Archibald MacLeish, “young and gallant” and very much alive at Amherst College—but less than one month later he was assassinated in Dallas.

Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Writing Center Susan Snively was looking for a way to introduce first-year students to the history and culture of the College. Recalling the historical significance of Kennedy’s visit, she approached Daria D’Arienzo, Head of Archives and Special Collections, with an idea for developing a program centered on this event for the August 2003 orientation.

The multi-media introduction and panel discussion created for that orientation spawned a series of Kennedy programs presented to the College community between August 2003 and May 2004. Offered during Orientation (August 2003), and as part of the College community’s inaugural weekend activities (October 2003), and for Reunion (May 2004), the presentation, called “The President and the Poet: John F. Kennedy at Amherst, October 26, 1963,” combined historical images and commentary with recollections by individuals who had been at the 1963 convocation and groundbreaking.

Susan Snively introduced the three panel programs and facilitated discussions. Daria D’Arienzo gave the historical context and showed newly discovered news footage of Kennedy’s convocation speech and previously unseen slides from the event. Panelists for the programs included: College President at the time of Kennedy’s visit, Dr. Calvin H. Plimpton ’39 (August 2003); his wife, Ruth Plimpton (August 2003); Psychology and Women and Gender Studies Professor Rose Olver (August and October 2003); History Professor Peter Czap (August and October 2003, May 2004); History and American Studies Professor Hugh Hawkins (October 2003, May 2004); alumnus and former College Editor Douglas C. Wilson ’62 (August and October 2003, May 2004); and Theodore Plimpton, son of President Plimpton, who was a young boy whose life was touched when President Kennedy told him “young man, we expect great things of you” (August 2003, May 2004). Daria D’Arienzo also presented the historical narrative and related visuals at the Friends of the Amherst College Library meeting in October 2003 and to the Alumni Association of France, Paris Chapter, in December 2003.

The foundation for these programs was the historical material in the Archives and Special Collections. Searching for something to help the students in the Orientation program to “see” President Kennedy, Daria rediscovered contemporary slides of Kennedy’s visit to Amherst, which she showed at all presentations. Additionally, at each presentation she was able to show videotapes of Kennedy’s speech, made from original television news film, and recently also some “home movies” of the motorcade taking the President between the convocation and groundbreaking sites. That archival film footage had a history of its own—what was seen changed from one showing to the next.

For the first orientation presentation, Daria was able to show some footage from NBC that she had tracked down in their archives. It was an incomplete version of the second half of Kennedy’s speech in which portions had been spliced out of order. For the October presentation, Daria was also able to show additional footage she had obtained from WGBH. Ironically, this footage was also incomplete, but fortunately, it was a complete version of the second half of Kennedy’s speech, with segments that the original NBC footage did not have. In the meantime, Daria had gone back to NBC and worked with them to reorder their version and to look again for more footage. They found that they did in fact have more footage—an almost complete version of the first half of Kennedy’s speech. With Daria’s guidance, NBC put all their footage in proper order, although the speech was still incomplete. Using the newly found NBC film and the film from WGBH, Daria was able to show at the Inaugural, Friends, Paris, and Reunion presentations a nearly complete version of Kennedy’s speech, though in two parts—half from each television station—with only three words missing.

The Reunion presentation included a new find—a 30-second home movie of the President’s motorcade in which we see President Kennedy and College President Plimpton riding in the open white Lincoln convertible along Pleasant Street. Ed Rowan, Class of 1950, remembered that he had made this movie and generously offered it to the Archives and Special Collections. Chemistry Professor Emeritus Allen Kropf and Rita Kropf were also at the 1963 event. After they attended the orientation panel, they recalled a short home movie of Kennedy’s visit that they had made and arranged for the Library to have a copy of their movie as well.

These early presentations marked the first time since that day in October 1963 that Kennedy’s speech was seen and heard as the President delivered it. These events spurred great interest in the 1963 visit and the significance of Kennedy’s convocation address at what turned out to be one of his last public appearances before he was assassinated in November. October 26, 1963, was indeed a day memories were made at Amherst.