David reflects on the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy.
November 22 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I remember his presidency as the time of Camelot, as many have called it. In January, 1961, the middle of my senior year in high school, John Kennedy became our president. He was handsome, youthful, and vibrant as was his delightful family. He came to office with the help of Frank Sinatra and his pals. While we all “liked Ike,” this new president took our breath away.
At his inauguration, he asked us to “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That signaled a change in our attitude about government. He pursued a New Frontier with a vision for democracy, freedom, and peace for the whole world. By March of that very same year, President Kennedy began the Peace Corp, the still-thriving volunteer organization designed to encourage Americans to help people in other parts of the world who could prosper and benefit from our help. To that end, he also told us that “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”
By May of that very same year, he challenged us to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. We did that because he convinced us that it was possible and worth doing and because he supported our efforts.
The next year, however, brought fear to us all. President Kennedy found that Russia had collaborated with Cuba to set up nuclear missiles in Cuba capable of attacking the U.S.A. He set up a blockade and put Cuba and Russia on notice that those missiles had to leave. As I sat with my fraternity brothers in my first term at college, we all figured the next step was that we would all be dead or on the next boat to somewhere to battle those people who were threatening us. We didn’t much like either option. With wisdom and courage, President Kennedy steered our diplomacy to convince the Russians to take the missiles back home. Those were scary times for all Americans.
The next thing I remember about those times was the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. I never knew what role, if any, President Kennedy played in those days, but it happened on his watch. And we believed he supported King’s effort toward an end to racism in our country. The march occurred in August of 1963.
In November of that year, President Kennedy went to Dallas in preparation for a reelection bid and used an open limousine, as was his practice, in a motorcade. There he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald who was then shot within two days by Jack Ruby. We were all undone. Not only had we lost Camelot, but the unknowing of how this could have happened and what could possibly be afoot took us back to the fear we had felt just a year earlier. His assassination was followed by the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King, the leader of non-violent protest to achieve the end of racism in our country, and Robert Kennedy, the President’s brother who carried the mantle of the President’s legacy. The hopes and exhilaration that John Kennedy had brought to the people of America were dashed with the killing of those three heroes. The optimism of the Kennedy years quickly turned to sorrow, fear, and suspicion.
The philosopher Ken Wilber says that we, as human beings, tend to have two “growth spurts” in our lives…one during our late teens and early twenties and one in our late 50’s and early 60’s. Maybe that is true and maybe that is why those ties were so important to me. But those men and those times seem especially wondrous to me. President Kennedy showed a self-confidence, a self-deprecation, a courage, a boldness, and an ability to articulate important ideas in a way that few people can match. By now, we all know that he was not perfect by any means, but those public qualities are worth emulating. They represent greatness. I also wonder if, by analyzing our own “growth spurts,” each of us can find our own ideas of greatness.
I suspect that our Six Sigma efforts are all-consuming, but I also expect that they will be short-lived as we think about our whole working lives. Why not take a few minutes, reflect on what we believe greatness to be, and make our Six Sigma efforts great? Even a little step will help.
As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.