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John Eggers: Just who was John F. Kennedy?

Have you read enough about former President John F. Kennedy? If you read one or two books, you have several more hundred to read. What is it about JFK that grabs our attention?I first became aware of John Kennedy in 1960 when one of my high school classmates gave an oral report about him in English class. His title was  “Why can’t a Catholic be president?” Before I knew it, I was listening to JFK’s inaugural address where he enthusiastically spoke those iconic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

The quote should win for the most quotable quote ever. It even made it in the fortune cookie business. Several months ago I opened up a fortunate cookie and the message read, “Ask not what a fortune cookie can do for you but what you can do for a fortune cookie.” I ate the cookie.

Kennedy’s advice must have affected me because I joined the Peace Corps and maybe, just maybe, I did something for my country.

It was shortly after John Kennedy was elected president that I became interested in national and international affairs. I was a student at Luther College when we discovered that Russia had placed missiles in Cuba. It scared the heebie-jeebies out of me as it did to most people.

Everyone was worried the Cold War was heating up and it was just a matter of hours or days when the United States would be nuked. People were praying hard and their prayers were answered because Russia dismantled their nuclear weapons in Cuba and turned their ships around. Kennedy’s approval rating shot up to 77 percent.

Who was John F. Kennedy? He was a man with courage. It took courage to give Premier Khrushchev an ultimatum. It also took a lot of courage to swim 5 miles in the ocean while towing one of his soldiers with the strap of a life preserver in his teeth to an island in the South Pacific. This happened after his PT boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.

Who was John F. Kennedy? He was a man with charisma. Another word for charisma is “presence.” When Kennedy entered a room, the room lit up. Presence is something that you can’t teach. Either you have or you don’t. John Kennedy had presence. Bill Clinton has presence and so did Ronald Reagan. Some athletes have presence and some of your friends and mine have presence. It truly is a gift. People with presence attract other people. It’s fun being around them. To be an exceptional leader, you need presence. John Kennedy had it in bushels.

Who was John F. Kennedy? John F. Kennedy was a compassionate person. He experienced the death of his sister, Kathleen, an older brother, Joseph, and his infant son, Patrick. His wife, Jackie, also had a miscarriage and a stillborn baby. Their son, John Jr., had been born prematurely and overcame weak lungs. Kennedy was given last rites three times before he reached the age of 40. According to some, if the public had known about his poor health, he probably never would have been elected president. From all of these experiences and his efforts in bringing about civil rights and trying to put an end to poverty, John Kennedy learned compassion and he taught it to us. When we learned that Kennedy had died, 56 percent of Americans shed a tear and millions more around the world.

Who was John F. Kennedy? John F. Kennedy was a communicator. He knew the power of television and he used it to get elected. He averaged one press conference every 16 days. The reporters loved him and he enjoyed talking to them. He was witty, intelligent, wise and spoke eloquently. He was entertaining to watch and listen to and we could not get enough of him.

Who was John F. Kennedy? Most of all, John Kennedy was a dreamer and he helped others envision a better world. From founding the Peace Corps, to making a commitment to put a man on the moon, to securing a limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, and to promoting the arts, Americans believed in his “Camelot” and all of us walked in step to the beat of this different drummer. When he left us in November of 1963, his approval rating was over 80 percent.

Who wa John F. Kennedy? As my grandmother used to say, he was a kind man who served his country well. We still miss him.

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.