'Ask Not...': JFK's Words Still Inspire 50 Years Later On Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy gave an inaugural address that became one of the most famous speeches in American history. It shaped the lives of many who took his words to heart. But will the message fade as generations pass?
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'Ask Not...': JFK's Words Still Inspire 50 Years Later

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'Ask Not...': JFK's Words Still Inspire 50 Years Later

'Ask Not...': JFK's Words Still Inspire 50 Years Later

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Fifty years ago this week John F. Kennedy took the oath of office on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol. And on that cold January day, the President Kennedy delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.

SIEGEL: And it was that new generation that found inspiration in Kennedy's words, especially in this challenge.

Former President KENNEDY: And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: Across America, and around the world, people heard that call to action, and many answered it. This story was prepared by NPR's Nathan Rott.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer: Inauguration day dawns on a capital that has been almost paralyzed by a full-fledged blizzard.

NATHAN ROTT: January 20th, 1961. Bruce Birch was 19 years old. He had moved to Washington from Kansas just in time to see the inauguration. And after a two-mile hike, because his bus got stuck in the eight inches of snow, he made it to the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. BRUCE BIRCH: It was literally still snowing and blowing. And I remember music from one of the military bands, thinking, man, I'd worry about my lips freezing to the mouthpiece.

ROTT: Famously, Kennedy wasn't wearing a coat or a hat. Forty-three years old, tan, even to those watching on a black and white TV, he looked the part of the youngest man ever elected to the Oval Office. He stepped to the microphone.

Pres. KENNEDY: We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom.

ROTT: He spoke of beginnings and ends, war and peace, disease and Poverty. He built the listeners up and then, finally, let loose the line that shaped a generation

Pres. KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

Mr. BIRCH: I remember feeling very invigorated by it, feeling at the end of the speech, man, this really makes me want to do something, to contribute.

ROTT: And Bruce Birch did contribute. He became a teacher, a professor and, later, dean of Wesley Theological Seminary. Birch answered Kennedy's call, and so did many others. Nineteen-year-old Donna Shalala was in her residence hall at Western College for Women in Ohio. The room was packed with freshmen but quiet as they watched on a fuzzy TV.

Ms. DONNA SHALALA: His exact words hit me like a splash of water. He was actually talking to me and he was speaking about public service.

ROTT: And public service was something Shalala had never really considered. But here was the President asking her to do something. A year later she joined the Peace Corps because...

Ms. SHALALA: That was the embodiment of President Kennedy's call to my generation for service.

ROTT: She went to Iran, to a mud village where she taught at an agricultural school. She came back to the U.S. and served as a professor and university administrator. She was appointed to President Clinton's cabinet where, for eight years, she served as the secretary of health and human services. And in 2008, when she herself was president of the University of Miami, another president, George W. Bush, awarded her the nation's highest civilian award: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She answered the call.

Gonzalo Barrientos heard it, too. He heard it from Texas.

Mr. GONZALO: BARRIENTOS: In Bastrop, Texas, where I grew up, there were three schools. There was a school for blacks, a school for whites, a school for Mexicans.

ROTT: Barrientos was the son of farmers, of cotton pickers. Kennedy's speech struck him because...

Mr. BARRIENTOS: He spoke for all of us, he spoke to all of us, whether you were poor, rich, whatever color, whatever background as an American. That was especially inspiring to me.

ROTT: And Barrientos rode that inspiration, becoming one of the first Mexican-Americans to serve in the Texas state legislature. There, he spent 31 years fighting racism and poverty. He answered the call.

Bill Hilliard heard the speech that day. But for him, the inspiration came two years later, on November 22nd, 1963. That morning, around the same time President Kennedy was setting out in a motorcade in Dallas, Hilliard was re-reading a letter he'd received that very morning. Greetings, it read...

Mr. BILL HILLIARD: You will report for induction into the U.S. Army at 0530, 5th of December, 1963, at the county building.

ROTT: But Hilliard didn't want to be a soldier. He had a job. He was in school, just in between semesters. There was an anti-war movement, his own moral misgivings. He thought of running to Canada, and then he heard it on the news.

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE: From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died...

Mr. HILLIARD: After Walk Cronkite made his announcement, I went upstairs and I got an old copy of Life magazine, which had a picture of him on it.

ROTT: A picture of JFK. On the back, his ask not quote. Hilliard tore out the page, wrote closed in memoriam on the bottom, and taped it to the business's front door. The next day, he enlisted in the Air Force voluntarily, and two years later...

Mr. HILLIARD: First time I was in Vietnam, we were in Denang, and the words came back to me again, about ask not, as I got off the plane.

ROTT: So the first thing you thought when you stepped off the plane in Vietnam was?

Mr. HILLIARD: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

ROTT: Fifty years later, it's a cold and quiet January day again in the nation's capital. From across the river, at Kennedy's gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, you can see the white dome of the Capitol building where Kennedy gave his famous speech and two years later laid in state.

It's here, below the eternal flame, that pieces of his speech are etched in granite, the pieces that inspired Barrientos and Birch, Hilliard and Shalala and many others - teachers and nurses, veterans and volunteers. But half a century has passed. Do those words still resonate? Or will they fade with the generation that carried them? I ask Andrew Collier, a 21-year-old from Tennessee, as he walks away from the memorial. He thinks they'll stick.

Mr. ANDREW COLLIER: It still clicks today, thinking about what you can do instead of trying to see what other people can do for you, you know.

ROTT: It's clicked for him. He's still tan from his most recent trip to New Orleans, his sixth, where he's helping to rebuild houses destroyed in Katrina, laying new floors, putting up walls. It's his way of giving back, he says, of answering his generation's challenges. In a way, he's answering Kennedy's.

What about the next generation? Six-year old Kole Hurtgren says he knows the words well. He's here with his family. His dad is a freshman Congressman from Illinois. I ask Kole to recite the words.

Mr. KOLE HURTGREN: Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

ROTT: It's not perfect, but it's close. And in the numbing cold, with the wind and snow, it doesn't seem all that different than it must have been on that day, 50 years ago.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Washington.

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