Remembering John Kennedy's Inauguration

It was 50 years ago that he called Americans to service.

It was 50 years ago that he called Americans to service.

Columnist E. J. Dionne’s piece on the President Kennedy’s inaugural speech, given 50 years ago today, stirred memories of that day and my small part in it.

I was 12 years old, and growing up in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac from Washington, D. C. As a Boy Scout I had the opportunity to usher at the Kennedy’s Inauguration.

We were to report for duty at 7 a.m. on Jan. 20, 1961. Since it snowed hard the day before and into the night, even getting to our post at the reviewing stands on Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t a sure thing. But Jan. 20 dawned clear and bitterly cold and we made it, through some ardent parental efforts (I imagine), on time.

I remember stomping on the frozen, snowy ground, trying to keep some sensation in my toes during the early hours of the morning. People, well bundled up, started showing up around 9. I was too far from the Capitol to hear the speech, but in time the parade started moving past. There was the young president, hatless despite the cold. His shock of brown hair and full smile were clear as he perched on the back of the open limosine, his beautiful, young wife below him. She was hatted, though I don’t think it was a hat calculated to keep her warm.

The parade went on throughout the day, with bands and dignitaries. By four in the afternoon, the day was starting to darken and viewing stands were empty. Stil the parade went on. At the tail end were the governors of the 50 states. Each chief executive was in his own convertible with a banner on the side bearing his (only “his” in 1961) name in big letters.

My gang was tired by then and probably a little giddy. We were also ready for some mischief. We spotted a governor's name, then 1-2-3 called out “Hey, John,” or whatever the governor’s first name was. His head jerked around, expecting to see a friend, but spotted instead eight or 10 mischevous boys. The next day, in a Washington Post reporter’s article on the inauguration, there was a brief report of our stunt.

Less than three years later, now age 14, I would be on that street again to watch Kennedy go by. But this time he was drawn by horses in a funeral caisson. Three of us headed downtown after finishing our Washington Post paper routes as early as we could. We wanted to get there before the crowds and did, finding a place at the front of what was eventually a crowd that was 35 rows deep behind us.

The black caisson rolled by accompanied by somber drum rolls and the sound of horses' hooves on the asphalt. Beside the hearse marched Marines. Behind the casket walked the world’s leaders. I remember the Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie walking side-by-side with Charles de Gaulle, the French president. That made an impression as Selassie was maybe 5 feet tall, while de Gaulle was 6’5”. Behind them walked the prime minister of Great Britain, Harold Macmillan.

If the inauguration day was bright, and it was, that November day in 1963 was overcast and immensely sad. Still, the lines from Kennedy’s Inaugural are imprinted on my memory, as is his smile. His call to ideals and service stamped my life, even if his life and presidency were cut short, changing my life and our history.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.