'Ask what you can do for your country'
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Fifty years ago a young president stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and, in a troubled and dangerous world, asked Americans to come together in a common cause.
Some of what John F. Kennedy said that cold day about the world's challenges may sound strikingly familiar to words we hear today.
"So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
"Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us."
There were other words, too, words that sounded like a clarion call to a generation — words that resonated with many who dreamed of making a better country, a better world.
"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
"My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
The young president would be dead, the victim of an assassin's bullet, less than three years later. But for some who heard him speak, and others who simply read or remembered his words, his influence remains, even today.
Linda Jackson, village president: Passing the torch to today's youth
Glendale Heights Village President Linda Jackson didn't foresee her career in community service.
"I never planned on being mayor," she says with a laugh.
But when she was unhappy with the way things were going in the village 20 years ago, Jackson asked not what Glendale Heights could do for her, but what she could do for Glendale Heights.
"I could stay home and keep my mouth shut, or try to do something to change it," she said.
She served as a village trustee for 10 years, then made a successful bid for mayor in 2001.
"It's not something I planned on, nor did I think I'd still be here," Jackson says. "But I totally enjoy it. It's really interesting."
Now she's using her position to inspire area youth by participating in "JFK 50th: Mayors Ask What Youth Can Do," a project sponsored by Harvard University's Institute of Politics and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The program sent participating mayors from more than 100 cities to middle and high school classrooms earlier this month to discuss President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address and call to service, as well as how youths are making a difference in cities.
"JFK — that was my day. I was 12 years old when he was put into his presidency on Jan. 20, 1961. Everybody watched that speech and it was just phenomenal," Jackson says. "His whole family was very service oriented. For people who didn't have to work, they gave up an awful lot to try and improve our country."
Jackson became involved in the anniversary program because it recognizes young people and inspires them to get involved in their community, just like she did.
"It's very important for youth to be involved in their communities," Jackson says. "I like it when kids come forward with their ideas about things they'd like to see happen in their towns. Unless they tell us what they want, well, you don't want a grandma figuring out what's best for teens."
That's not just talk in Glendale Heights. The village built a skate park because a group of young people made a pitch for it. The village also is seeking input from teens for other things, such as enhancements to its water park.
"It's good for (youth) to be involved, not just in school, but in what's going on in the country," Jackson said. "It keeps them out of trouble, and it gets them interested and knowledgeable about what's going on around them. 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' … that statement is so very true."
— Melynda Findlay
Tom Weisner, mayor: 'People can change things if they work together'
Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner remembers hearing John F. Kennedy's inauguration speech at the impressionable age of 11 and being moved by the former president's message that people working together can make positive changes.
"He was young and I think because he was young, he caught my attention quite a bit," Weisner says. "I was influenced by the whole idea of being able to change the world."
Weisner also says he was struck by Kennedy's idealism and emphasis on public service. Before becoming mayor in 2005, Weisner spent five years in the Peace Corps, serving with his wife on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands between 1980 and 1985.
"He did influence me to be open to the idea of service and public service," Weisner says about Kennedy.
Although idealism may not be the prevailing political message of this era, Weisner says he maintains the belief promoted by Kennedy and other activists that change is possible.
"I still definitely believe that people can change things if they work together," Weisner says. "Part of what sustains me as mayor is I think that we can make things better."
— Marie Wilson
Bernie Kleina, housing activist: 'He tried to bring people together'
When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the nation's first Roman Catholic president, Bernie Kleina was serving as a priest.
Kleina, now the executive director of HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, remembers the concerns Kennedy's religion aroused during the 1960 campaign.
"(He) was a big influence on me to realize the heights Catholics could achieve," Kleina says. "(It was a) great opportunity for people to better understand men and women in politics who might be Catholic."
Kleina heeded Kennedy's call to "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country," and says he tries to live his life with that in mind.
For the past 40 years, he has championed fair housing for those who face discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability or family size. When he started, housing discrimination most frequently was directed against blacks.
Kleina says Kennedy tried to ease the racial tensions of the 1960s.
"He didn't do as much as he should have done, but he did more than other presidents in that regard," he says. "I think he tried to bring people together."
Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, has brought youth, energy and activism to the office, reminiscent of Kennedy, Kleina says.
"I admire presidents or leaders who try to bring out the best in people. I think Kennedy was that type of president," he says. "That's the way I feel about Obama now."
— Susan Dibble
Donna Wielgolewski, teacher: 'He had this aura'
Donna Wielgolewski was 11 when she watched John F. Kennedy's historic inaugural address from her desk at a Catholic elementary school on Chicago's Southwest Side.
The nun who taught the sixth-grade class was so happy about a Roman Catholic becoming president of the United States, she used a cart to bring a television from the adjoining convent into the classroom.
"When she rolled it into our room, we thought we had died and gone to heaven because we were going to watch TV instead of having class," says Wielgolewski, now 61.
Five decades later, the Winfield resident says she has vivid memories of seeing Kennedy on television that day. She said one of the first things that struck her was his age.
"(Dwight) Eisenhower was president when I was growing up," she says. "Kennedy was a young man compared to Eisenhower. He had a young, beautiful wife. So he had this aura about him. It really was kind of surreal at the time because people had such faith and hope in him."
While Kennedy's youth made an impression, it was his words that resonated with Wielgolewski.
"He was so charismatic and so caring and such an eloquent speaker that he got you excited about the possibilities of what you can do," she said.
Hearing Kennedy speak sparked Wielgolewski's interest in government and politics. As a college freshman in 1968, she canvassed neighborhoods in northwest Indiana working for Robert Kennedy's campaign. She even considered joining the Peace Corps.
Wielgolewski eventually pursued her lifelong dream to become an educator. She has been a teacher for 25 years, including 18 years at Wheaton North High School.
"It was a special time," she says. "He (JFK) definitely inspired in young people a desire to become involved."
Wielgolewski says something similar happened when President Barack Obama took office two years ago. Her two youngest children, both in their 20s, became excited about the political process and wanted to vote because of Obama's campaign.
"I definitely think it was very similar to how Kennedy inspired young people," she says. "They can relate to him more because he's younger."
As for Wielgolewski, she teaches social studies at Wheaton North. She says she enjoys talking to her students about how she lived through historic moments. Her personal experiences include seeing the protests in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
The biggest question students ask, though, doesn't involve Kennedy or politics at all. It's whether she went to Woodstock.
"I tell them I saw the movie — not the real thing," she says.
— Robert Sanchez
William Carroll, university president: 'We can do anything'
William Carroll was only in seventh grade when John F. Kennedy appeared on the screen of his family's black-and-white TV, looking fresh and charismatic next to Richard Nixon, his then-opponent for president.
"I will never forget my father pointing to him and saying 'Son, that's your next president,'" Carroll says.
Now the president of Benedictine University in Lisle, Carroll says Kennedy's election wasn't just an inspiration for Catholics seeking leadership roles.
"I don't remember the persecution of Catholics, but I do remember organizations saying negative things about us, so what Kennedy's election did was help us realize 'Hey, we're full members of society now,'" says Carroll. "Now you can see the same parallel with (President Barack) Obama. They gave Americans a new sense of hope, that we can do anything."
After Kennedy's election, his inaugural speech continued to instill a sense of possibility into the American mindset, Carroll says.
When Kennedy urged Americans to "ask what you can do for your country," he inspired an entire generation to action, the Benedictine president says.
He credits the anti-war movement and other political activism of the '60s and '70s to leaders such as Kennedy who renewed interest in civic thought.
"He reminded us that the government can't make it better for us. We have to make it better," Carroll says.
Although he acknowledges the former president's shortfalls and personal failings, Carroll says it doesn't take away from the benchmark of his presidency and how it still resonates with Americans today.
"It was a milestone in that a Catholic could be president," he said. "Kennedy and, now, Obama are showing other groups who still feel separated to give it time, because this country really is inclusive."
— Elisabeth Mistretta
Judy Brodhead, councilwoman: 'A reassuring and unified force'
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Wayne, N.J., Judy Brodhead connected with John F. Kennedy at an early age.
Now a member of the Naperville City Council, Brodhead remembers Kennedy's election and inauguration as a "tremendously important" event in her family home.
"I was 9 years old when JFK was elected and I remember the happiness my parents felt at that time. They just had a sense that this was their generation," she said. "Despite my youngest sister being just a toddler, even she could point to the television and recognize him."
Though Kennedy's inaugural address, no doubt, meant more to her parents at the time, Brodhead regularly references the speech in the composition classes she teachers at North Central College.
"The address is short and a bit cliche but also very inspirational and it inspired a patriotic feeling," she said. "Kennedy was trying to be a reassuring and unified force because 1961 was a scary time. We worried about China and Russia and what challenges would face the country. We had an awful lot of anxiety about parts of the world we knew very little about."
— Justin Kmitch
Bill Mueller, village president: He connected with people
Lombard Village President Bill Mueller recognizes that John F. Kennedy was a great communicator.
"He had the skills to communicate very well with everyone. I think when he spoke, everyone felt he was very sincere. I think they felt very close to him," Mueller says.
Kennedy influenced everyone who listened to him, including average citizens and local leaders, Mueller says. And the former president's ability to connect with everyday people is something Mueller says he tries to emulate.
"When you're in a leadership role, whether you're president of the United States or president of the village," he says, "you try to capture that ability to be able to speak to your residents and communicate with them in a way that they understand."
— Marie Wilson
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