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JFK's Final Days: October 26, 1963

On October 26, 1963 (fifty years ago) President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. According to author Thurston Clarke in his recent book entitled JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President, Kennedy didn't like the speech that Theodore Sorenson had written for him (he thought it was "thin and stale"), so he asked Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to improve the speech. Clarke also writes that Kennedy used the speech as a way of posthumously making amends to Robert Frost, who Kennedy had "treated shabbily" in the last months of the poet's life, according to the author.

Today the Robert Frost Library is marking the 50th anniversary of the speech, known as the "Poetry and Power" speech. On Oct. 26, 1963, Kennedy visited Amherst College to receive an honorary degree and preside over the groundbreaking for the Robert Frost Library. Calvin H. Plimpton from the Amherst class of 1939, was president of Amherst College at the time. Robert Frost had taught at Amherst for decades and President Kennedy frequently quoted from Frost's poems in his speeches. Frost had been the first poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration when he recited a poem, though not the one he intended. For the inauguration, the 85 year old Frost composed a new poem, which he initially called "Dedication" (but later retitled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration"), which he planned to read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested. But on the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece, typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light. When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made the reading the poem impossible. He decided instead to recite "The Gift Outright" from memory.

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Frost had died earlier in 1963, and Kennedy’s words on that fall day honored not only Frost and the important role that arts and culture play in society, but also the obligation that graduates of colleges such as Amherst have to serve society.

Edward “Ted” Plimpton, son of the Amherst President, was 11 at the time and remembers that day. He said “As he was leaving Amherst he turned to me on the steps of the President’s house and said, ‘Young man, we have great hopes for you,' Then he popped into his car and off he went.”

In the speech, the eloquent President Kennedy quoted Frost and said of the poet:

Robert Frost said it:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I hope that road will not be the less traveled by, and I hope your commitment to the great public interest in the years to come will be worthy of your long inheritance since your beginning.

This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians as well as by others, and even by poets, for Robert Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this College and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension. In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.


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To mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s historic visit, the Frost Library has prepared an online exhibition, called “The President and The Poet,” as well a display of photographs and mementos on the library’s Mezzanine level. The online exhibit can be found here. An exhibition reception is taking place today from 3 to 5 p.m. local time in the library’s Friendly Reading Room, with a viewing of the speech and gallery talk by family members of Robert Sargent Fay, who took the color photographs in the exhibition.

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