2020 Election Campus News News

A look back at JFK’s commencement speech at Springfield College

Hayden Choate

June 10, 1956.  

Springfield College students had just completed their academic year and the seniors were ready to graduate. 

One remaining question was who would be their commencement speaker? 

It wound up being Massachusetts Senator, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 

Four years before becoming the 35th President of the United States and seven years before being assassinated, John F. Kennedy gave the commencement speech at Springfield College to the class of 1956. 

Kennedy, who is one of the most famous United States Presidents in history, began his speech by explaining how grateful he was to be honored by Springfield College. 

“I am proud and grateful for the honor bestowed upon me today by a College justly celebrated even beyond the borders of Massachusetts,” Kennedy said in his speech archived on the JFK library website. 

Even though at this particular time in history Kennedy was yet to be elected president, him giving the commencement address was still a big deal. 

“It’s pretty impressive for the college to get him,” said Thomas Carty, a History Professor at Springfield College who also published a book about Kennedy in 2004.

Kennedy’s political career really took flight after his address at Springfield, when in the summer of 1956 he was the runner-up in selection of Vice President as Estes Kefauver was chosen over Kennedy. 

Since Kennedy was a Senator in Massachusetts when he gave his speech, he stressed the importance to “stay in Massachusetts, to have faith Massachusetts,” but he may have known down the road he might take a shot at running for higher office. 

“He’s promoting his local constituents but he’s also starting to think about a national audience,” Carty said. 

Being the commencement speaker wasn’t the only connection Kennedy had to the college, as they gave him an honorary degree for the commencement, but he was also a part of the board of corporates. This was a trustee level board that is no longer in existence, according to Springfield College archivist Jeff Monseau.

“It was almost like an honorary designation,” Monseau said. 

In 1961, John F. Kennedy started the peace corps as part of an executive action after just being elected. As the peace corps grew, Springfield College was selected and served as a training site for Peace Corps volunteers in the early 1960s. 

With the upcoming election, Kennedy not only has a connection to Springfield College but to one of the candidates in the race. 

Although Kennedy was elected President back in 1960, he and a 2020 presidential candidate share something in common. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president, is a Catholic — same as Kennedy.

Biden, who was Vice President for eight years, would be just the second Catholic president in United States history. The first since Kennedy, who won his election 60 years ago. 

The last presidential candidate who was Catholic was John Kerry, who also gave a commencement speech at Springfield College prior to running for the position of the country leader.

Not having a Catholic president since 1960 and just one other candidate in that time may be an odd statistic, but according to Carty religion and politics can be a very mixed bag.

“It’s really difficult for Catholics because the Catholic church teaching is sometimes a more Democratic teaching and sometimes more aligned with the Republican party,” Carty said. 

In addition to Kennedy and Kerry, Springfield College has also had Martin Luther King Jr. and Julius Erving, among several other famous names deliver commencement speeches.

Photo: Springfield College Archives

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