TERRE HAUTE —
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
Each section of stone contained a passage from his 1961 inaugural address. Each etching contained eloquence, but I searched for one in particular as my family and I quietly visited the site on a vacation a few years ago. It was just one sentence. Yet those 22 words remain as memorable as any uttered by a human being.
I was a mere infant when Kennedy spoke them, but I’d watched the glowing old news footage of his speech, one of history’s most famous.
When I found the quotation, I snapped a photograph and studied the words.
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Many of us need only to hear the first seven words to automatically begin reciting the final 15 from memory. We immediately connect them to JFK, even a half-century after his death. That milestone arrives Friday, when America reflects on Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — also a Friday. The rear-view mirror overflows with “Where were you?” recollections, unending conspiracy theories, and analysis from every angle of that tragic event’s impact — culturally, politically, economically, locally, nationally, globally.
Still, when we think of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, echoes of his New Englander accent enunciating the words — “ask not” — resonate in our minds.
On Tuesday, the nation marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln reminded listeners at the dedication of a cemetery at that Civil War battlefield that, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
As with “ask not” and Kennedy, “four score” and Lincoln are forever bound in our consciousness. The enduring nature of their trademark quotations should make all of us non-presidents pause. If our kids and grandkids, and those of our neighbors and friends, remember us by a single comment we’ve made over a lifetime, what will it be?
We’d prefer that our profound, “Sit-down-son-and-let’s-talk,” meaning-of-life lectures get stuck in their memories. It doesn’t always work out that way. Hoosier rocker John Mellencamp once pointed out that he and other recording artists don’t get to choose which of their songs become hits; the listeners do. The same goes for the average person’s words. The people on the receiving end — including the eavesdroppers — often link one phrase with its speaker, whether it’s motivational, funny, wise, salacious, mean, hurtful or insulting. The listeners choose.
A former co-worker, who taught me several useful journalistic skills, probably would wish that one of those insightful pieces of advice is what I remember most. Unfortunately, my brain clung to something else. He once said, “Never dump coffee grounds down the drain. They’re like cement. They’ll clog your sink.” And, so, virtually every morning as I empty and reload the percolator, this timeless admonition from a veteran newspaperman replays in my head and I throw the old grounds on the garden outside.
It’s not exactly fitting for a slogan on one of those waves-crashing-onto-the-beach, inspirational posters, but it’s practical.
Wise people have long warned humans to think before we speak. As Solomon wrote in Proverbs, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” A playground taunt, a teacher’s praise, an angry putdown or a stranger’s kindness can linger for years, maybe decades, pushing the recipient toward great achievements or therapy for a broken spirit. A 2010 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that young adults who experienced verbal abuse from peers in middle school got saddled with higher levels of anxiety, depression, anger issues and drug abuse.
Kennedy understood the potential of words. For all of his personal flaws, the 35th president mastered the ability to stir hope and optimism in a generation with a spoken message. His speeches weren’t mere idealism, though. They led to action. In 1961, he addressed Congress and articulated his goal of the United States putting a man on the moon and returning him to Earth by the end of the decade. In 1969, less than six years after JFK’s death, it happened. Also in ’61, Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Fifty-two years later, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries, helping the world’s needy.
Ideally, my kids — and someday their kids — will repeat an impressive quotation from my wife or me as a motto for good living. Then again, that enduring comment could be of the no-coffee-grounds-in-the-sink-caliber. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to speak to them out of wisdom, love and concern. The words, though, compose only half of our legacy’s equation. As with Kennedy's call to service for the country, the Peace Corps and the moon landing, action must follow.
“As we express our gratitude,” Kennedy once said, “we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.