Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, October 15, 2010

50 years later, Kennedy’s inspiration continues to shape U-M community

U-M students, alumni, faculty and staff huddled close outside the Michigan Union in a cold rain well past 2:30 a.m. Thursday. And a crowd gathered eight hours late to reflect on how John F. Kennedy's idea, articulated 50 years earlier, continues to shape the university and world.

Those assembled in sessions throughout the week discussed the ways Kennedy’s brief impromptu remarks, made a half century ago, fueled a belief that they can make a difference and “change the world.” Many noticed the similarities between the 1960 gathering of more than 5,000 and this year’s gathering at and near the same spot.

  University regents, administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. (Photo by Martin Vloet, Photo Services)

Kennedy’s 2 a.m. Oct. 14, 1960, challenge — where he asked students about “your willingness to contribute part of your life to this county,” and the enthusiastic response of the U-M community — widely is credited with giving birth to the Peace Corps and a universitywide dedication to public service through numerous other organizations.

President Mary Sue Coleman, speaking Thursday at an 11 a.m. gathering on the same Union steps where Kennedy spoke, recalled being a 17-year-old high school senior in 1961, when she met Kennedy and visited the White House as a finalist in the nationwide Westinghouse Science Talent Search competition.

“I can’t tell you how exciting this was to a 17-year-old, to meet and speak with President Kennedy,” Coleman recalled. “The memory is so strong for me because it was just days after the president had signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps.


Students and visiting Ghanaian musical specialists perform on fontomfrom drums, traditional Ghanaian instruments used to mark special events, on the steps of the Michigan Union. (Photo by Martin Vloet, Photo Services)


“I thanked President Kennedy for making the Peace Corps a reality, and for believing that our generation would help change the world. I could not have imagined that one day I would have the privilege to literally stand at the birthplace of the Peace Corps and thank the students and faculty whose enthusiasm made JFK’s vision such a powerful reality.”

Alan Guskin, who was a 23-year-old graduate student standing outside the Union when Kennedy challenged the campus, had his whole life changed by that short speech. He went on to help lead the push to establish the Peace Corps by March 1961 and was among the first volunteers.

Guskin told the crowd Thursday, “The key to success is not giving up.’’

Steven Weinberg, a U-M student and founder of Will Work for Food, a group that raises donations for charitable work and then uses the donations to pay for food for undernourished children, said the response to Kennedy’s challenge helped “cultivate a U-M culture” focused on public service, noting students now give thousands of hours of time to public service every year.

Jack Hood Vaughn, a 91-year-old U-M alumnus and the second director of the Peace Corps (from 1966-69), said, “A person is known for where his heart is rather for where his home is, and my heart is here.” He said U-M changed his life and he wouldn’t have gotten the attention of Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver if he hadn’t coached boxing at U-M and gone on to fight boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson.

Vaughn said Peace Corps volunteers and U-M students are the kinds of committed people “who don’t just go the distance. They stay.”

He said the Peace Corps “made the concept of the ugly American obsolete.”

— Katie Merx Sarver of Public Affairs contributed to this report.