Doing his homework really paid off for Edward Vogel, a 16-year-old Connecticut high schooler, who won the Knights of Columbus Essay Contest on “Why President Kennedy’s Words Still Matter.”
His first-place essay on John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech was chosen from among 700-plus entries and earned him a $1,500 prize and an expense-paid trip with his parents to the 2011 Supreme Convention in Denver.
The Knights of Columbus sponsored the contest for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech, which is considered by many to have set the tone and vision for a generation of Americans. Kennedy, who belonged to the Knights of Columbus, was the nation’s first Catholic president.
“I am very honored to win the contest,” Edward said a few days before leaving for the convention. “I’ve never been to Denver before and I’m sure it will be a great experience.”
Entering his junior year at Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Conn., Edward has been a First Honors student each trimester. He also plays tennis, performs on the piano and French horn, and sings in a choral group.
“He works really hard in everything he does,” said his mother, Elizabeth. “He’s a real doer.”
The JFK essay was presented as a class assignment by his English teacher, who handed out copies of the inaugural speech and showed a video of Kennedy delivering it. Edward backed up this information with online research on the historical period, which allowed him to reference the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the Civil Rights Movement that was gaining momentum.
“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,” he wrote in his winning essay.
When Kennedy spoke about serving the country, “He did not necessarily mean fighting wars, however. He was talking about helping to make the country a better place.”
Edward concluded, “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.’”
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.”