President John F. Kennedy made a great impression on me and hundreds of others when he made a surprise visit to a youth convention in New York City on Nov. 15, 1963.

On that Friday, a convention for the National Catholic Youth Organization was winding down to disperse the young attendees back to their home states after four days of seminars, devotions and election of officers.

Rumors circulated that President Kennedy might appear at our convention. The President was across the street seeking support from the AFL/CIO Union at their convention. Since I was with the Massachusetts delegation I felt confident that our Archbishop, Richard Cardinal Cushing, would get the president over to say a few words to the young delegates. After all, Cushing was a close friend of Kennedy, and gave the Benediction at his Inaugural.

And come Kennedy did. The teenagers went wild when he stepped on the stage, and without notes, grabbed a microphone and said in effect, “Sorry I’m late. My staff said I should be buttonholing Union officials urging them to support my candidacy for re-election. But when I heard you were next door, I had to see your bright and eager faces. I am especially pleased to see so many nuns here in the hall. It has been my experience that priests vote Republican, but the nuns always vote Democratic!

“I know that your youth leaders brought you here because you were the cream of the crop from back home. I came here, not to congratulate you for being chosen to be here, but to congratulate you for what you are going to do when you leave here. I congratulate you for what you are going to achieve for God, the Church, our country and your families.

“I know you can’t vote for me, but you can pray for me as I face a new election. I know I can do better. With your help, I will do better! Thanks for having me, and safe travel home.” There was a thunderous ovation for him as he waved goodbye and left. One week later, to the day and the hour, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas.

To say the President Kennedy inspired all of us would be an understatement. We treasured his words, “Ask not what our country can do for you, but what you can do for our country.” Certainly our Boston group idolized Kennedy. He was from our home town, he was Catholic, a Navy hero, a President, and he talked funny like we all do in Massachusetts.

Kennedy never became known as a great president in his few allotted years in office, but he was still a giant in our eyes. Some denigrate decisions he made as president, but I have since learned over the years that several of my heroes have had ‘clay feet’. But, I do know, that Kennedy did inspire a generation of youth people to public service.

Many volunteered for his Peace Corps. Many more became teachers, nurses, doctors, nuns and priests – all service oriented. When Vietnam heated up, young men joined the military services. I, myself, became a Navy/Marine chaplain. Two of our altar boys became Navy pilots, and were killed in the skies of North Vietnam. Some commitments to service are more dangerous than others – ask any Gold Star mother.

Times are different today. We are not so easily inspired. No matter what political persuasion a president professes, we tend to look with a jaundiced eye on whatever he says or does.

As we approach the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, we should recall his Camelot days – the inspiration he was to young and old alike. We hope and trust that day will return, sooner than later.

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