President John F. Kennedy Essay Contest
January 20 of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. He joined the Knights of Columbus soon after returning from service in the Navy during World War II and remained an active member for nearly 20 years, until his assassination in 1963. His inaugural address is one of the most famous in American history.
In celebration of this anniversary, the Order sponsored an essay contest for students at Catholic high schools throughout the United States. They were asked to submit an essay of 500 to 750 words on the topic, “Why President Kennedy’s Words Still Matter.”
This contest was a great success and entries were received from 726 students who attend 171 Catholic high schools throughout the country. Each participating school received a framed poster with the text of President Kennedy’s speech and an image from his inauguration.
The third place winner was Sean Little, of Lancaster Catholic High School in Pennsylvania, who received a $500 prize. The second place winner was Paul Mueller, of John Paul II Catholic High School in New Braunfels, Texas, who received a $1,000 prize.
The first place winner is Edward Vogel of Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Connecticut. In addition to his $1,500 prize, he and his parents also received an all-expense-paid trip to this Supreme Convention to be recognized during the awards session. His essay follows:
Why Kennedy’s Words are Relevant Today
Notre Dame High School
West Haven, Connecticut
On a cold January morning in 1961, a country was blessed with a great leader. Not only did he serve Americans faithfully, but he also gave them courage to move their native land toward peace and prosperity. He did not call his people to fight in battles or amongst themselves; he simply called them to help others and make the world a better place. He was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and he spoke to the American people of the 1960s about how they should live up to the word “American”: how they should use their God-given rights and freedoms. This speech is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. The words of Kennedy’s inauguration speech matter today because they tell us to work together to establish peace, to serve our country proudly, and to do the right thing.
Striving for peace is a constant human quest. This was very true at the time of Kennedy’s inauguration. The world was in the midst of the Cold War, and America was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. People everywhere were constantly at odds with each other, whether about who should control a country, or who should sit at the front of the bus. Kennedy spoke of what would happen if people continued this self-absorbed behavior. “Finally, to those…who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction … engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.” Today, these words would make one instantly think of the wars in the Middle East and conflicting ideas on religion, and what effects they have on people. The words make people realize that it’s time to stand up and work for peace before it’s too late. Kennedy goes on to say: “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” He could not be more correct, then and now. If all the people who had differences with one another got together to discuss what beliefs they have in common, they would realize that they don’t need to fight. Rather, they would realize they need to work together to serve their nation and the common good.
In his inaugural address, Kennedy spoke about service to the country. He did not necessarily mean fighting in wars, however. He was talking about helping to make the country a better place. He said, to do this, people need to work together as one: “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do —for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.” This is relevant today because Americans need to understand that if they don’t cooperate and work together to improve things like the nation’s economy and environment, then nothing will get done. Kennedy understood this, and went on to instill a sense of commitment to the nation in everyone: “…ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” It was a request to serve the nation and to do what is right.
Sometimes, being kind and doing the right thing is misconstrued as covering up selfish ulterior motives with good deeds. Kennedy wanted to set America — and the world — straight about the fact that the people of this country are charitable and generous because they are doing what they believe is good: “To those people…of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them…not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.” These words are relevant today because no matter what others might say about us as Americans, we need to always do the right thing when it comes to helping others in our community and around the globe.
Serving our country, working for peace, and doing what is right are all subjects in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address which find a place in our hearts today. The time is now to work toward love and brotherhood. God will be with us on this journey, but the choice to begin it is in our hands, because, as Kennedy said, “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”