I was in sophomore geometry class at Notre Dame High School for Boys in Niles, Illinois when the Holy Cross Father came on the loud speaker and said "the President has been shot in Dallas. Pray for him." You could then hear a pin drop in the classroom. Tears rolled down the cheeks of normally taciturn teenage boys. That Sunday, as we headed into Mass, a man called from the church parking lot "Oswald's been shot." A second shock. That week of the blood-stained dress, the Presidential oath on a grounded Air Force One, the rider-less black horse, the little boy saluting, and the eternal flame will be forever seared in our memories. For Irish-Americans this all has a very special place in our hearts for, as my Aunt Dot said, "Jack Kennedy was one of ours."
I had almost personally seen President Kennedy in early November 1963, when our high school band headed to O’Hare Airport to greet him for his arrival for the Army-Air Force game at Soldier Field. We were told that a military coup in South Vietnam, however, led to a last-minute cancellation of what would have been his final visit to Chicago. There were other, later reports that the trip was cancelled due to an assassination plot on the streets of Chicago just three weeks before the President died.
We have learned since his death that President Kennedy had his flaws, like all human beings. But he was still the leader of the glitter of Camelot, an era that seems so distant from today's grim America. His call to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," which has a somewhat naive ring in today's cynical world, struck a chord. You see, as with many of us, John Fitzgerald Kennedy changed my life. After graduating from college, I answered his call and volunteered with the Peace Corps to teach English in Korea. From there I joined the Foreign Service and had two tours in Korea, one at our Embassy in Seoul and the other at the Consulate in Pusan. I then served for a dozen years as an adviser on Korean and other Asian issues for Henry Hyde and other Congressional leaders on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Today I am a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS. My entire career – and meeting my wife in Korea – was shaped by President Kennedy’s stirring words and by his formation of the Peace Corps.
I recently returned to Seoul at the invitation of the Government of the Republic of Korea, to attend a Peace Corps reunion. Old volunteers there were overwhelmed by the thankfulness expressed. "We just taught ABCs and gave TB inoculations," I told the Korean press in an interview. But the Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs told us all at a welcoming reception, that "you came and helped us in our time of need. Without Peace Corps, Korea would never have achieved its economic miracle." In 1991 South Korea established The Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to administer the grant programs that an economically developed Korea could now fund and to send volunteers, in a reflection of the Peace Corps, to the developing world. That also is part of President Kennedy's legacy.
I was a bit disappointed to see two American Presidents, Obama and Clinton, along with Aunt Ethel, attending a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery for President Kennedy’s fiftieth death anniversary but that Caroline, the last surviving member of his immediate family, was absent. Caroline had flown off to Tokyo to become the new U.S. Ambassador just a week before the ceremony at Arlington. JFK’s daughter must have her own personal reasons. She also had meetings with the Japanese Emperor and Prime Minister. But, as President-elect Kennedy remarked on January 9, 1961: "to those whom much is given, much is expected." And it would be unimaginable for the Korean President, Park Geun-hye, also the daughter of an assassinated president, not to attend a memorial service for her father. I took the Metro out to Arlington Cemetery on Friday, November 22nd, to lay some flowers for President Kennedy from a grateful Peace Corps/Korea.