JFK and MIT: Honoring the Connection

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on November 22, 2013

in Campus Culture, Remember When...

JFK relied on MIT experts.

JFK relied on MIT experts.

On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, we remember the Massachusetts man who inspired—and continues to inspire—the country. Here are a few of Kennedy’s MIT connections.

Centennial Presence

Newly in office, President Kennedy recorded a message in 1961 congratulating MIT on its centennial and addressing the increasingly important role of education in the life of the nation. Recorded in the White House on April 6, Kennedy’s voice was played two days later during MIT’s Centennial celebration. Watch the video with Kennedy’s message against footage of the centennial procession and images of Professor Walt Whitman Rostow, who Kennedy appointed as deputy special assistant to the President for national security affairs, and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner, who served as Kennedy’s special assistant for science and technology.

Kennedy Brought MIT to Washington

Wiesner’s 1994 obituary in The Tech noted his work with the late president in the first sentence and detailed the MIT president’s impact: “As Kennedy’s chief adviser and planner for science issues, he worked on the treaty banning all but underground nuclear tests that was signed by the United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom in 1963….Wiesner returned to the Institute in 1964 shortly after Kennedy’s assassination.”

The 1963 Tech photo shows a flag flown at half mast to honor JFK.

The 1963 Tech photo shows a flag flown at half mast to honor JFK.

The MIT Libraries own a copy of JFK’s inaugural address, embossed with the Great Seal of the United States in gold plus a handwritten message in blue ink: “To James Killian Jr., with appreciation and best wishes, John Kennedy, Christmas 1961.” The presidential letters archive holds a Kennedy letter thanking Killian for agreeing to serve as chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Kennedy Scholars

MIT and Harvard announced plans in 2007 to expand the Kennedy Scholarship Fund, a program that has brought some 432 British students to MIT or Harvard for graduate work, including British Labour Party politician David Miliband SM ′90.

Campus Aftermath

According to The Tech’s article published November 26, 1963, MIT classes were cancelled at 3:15 p.m., Friday, November 22, shortly after the assassination. In observance of the day of national mourning proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson, a memorial convocation was held in Kresge Auditorium Nov. 25. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

The Tech, Nov. 26, 1963 . Click for larger.

The Tech, Nov. 26, 1963 . Click for larger.

Immediately after the death of President Kennedy had been announced, Dr. James R. Killian Jr., Chairman of the Corporation, issued the following statement: “Our nation and civilized men over all the world have suffered a catastrophic and incalculable loss. Nothing can mitigate the tragedy of this barbarous event or the overriding sorrow we feel for the family and friends of our late President. But as a great leader and a superbly dedicated man, he would have counseled us to stand steady, to re-affirm our deep commitment to all things noble and sacred in life, and to gather together in strong support of our new President.”

The statement of President Stratton, issued Friday afternoon, read in part: “The assassination of President Kennedy is an enormous tragedy for the United States and the entire free world. This cruel and irrational act has taken from us a truly great President at the height of his powers. All Americans must feel a deep personal sorrow, and our hearts go out to Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy family. We have lost in a difficult hour the leader whose every approach to the great problems that beset us was guided by a keen intelligence and an ennobling vision of the highest aspirations of the American people.”

Undergraduate Reaction

News of the assassination of the President spread quickly among the MIT undergraduate body. Shocked students clustered around radios and television sets, awaiting the grim developments. A staggering load of telephone calls went through the MIT switchboard. Professor Carleton Tucker, administrator of the Institute telephone system, stated that the load was “one and-a-half times any previous peak.”

Were you there that day? Add your memories in the comments below or Facebook or Twitter.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

SOMNATH MISRA, Sc.D '63 November 22, 2013 at 11:52 am

On the afternoon of fateful day Nov 22, 1963, when I was serving the Metallurgy Department as Research associate, my fiancee Susama & I had gone to the City Hall, Cambridge, Mass. to apply for registration of our marriage. We found that the lady assistants were highly saddened, which we could not attribute to any specific reason. One lady came from another office room amd announced to her friends, ” Oh! He is dead!”. We enquired from them about the matter. Then a lady announced, ” President Kennedy has been shot at Dellas.” We were so devastated by the sad news that we decided that the day is inauspicious, and we postponed our application for registration by one week. Even after 50 years, we are shattered by the memory of that tragedy!

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Jack Brownell November 23, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I was in my senior thesis lab in Bldg. 20 that day when I went to the supply room for some items. The equipment manager, a big man, was in tears as he placed a small, hand-written sign on the counter saying that the President was dead. Not a Kennedy fan, I was still greatly saddened and could hardly believe what started coming over the radio. That night I went into Boston and just walked around feeling the pall that lay across the city.

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