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April 20, 1963, Kennedy with Walsh (left) and Cardinal Richard Cushing. Photographs: John J. Burns Library
“It is the defining image of the University’s 1963 centennial celebration: the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in an academic gown, addressing a crowd of 20,000 in Alumni Stadium on a radiant Saturday afternoon, April 20, 1963. Kennedy had been the first choice of University President Michael P. Walsh, SJ, to deliver the culminating talk. Amid all-out efforts to achieve a prominent extended celebration of Boston College (more than 50 events in 14 months) the Jesuit turned to intermediaries in Boston and Washington, D.C., to draw him in.
The first invitation was dispatched July 9, 1962, in a letter from construction magnate Thomas White, a Newton resident, Harvard alumnus, and Kennedy friend, who wrote that the people of Boston College were “most anxious to have you as the principal guest at their ACADEMIC CONVOCATION” and that they would “build the program” around a presidential visit. Word came back from White House aide Kenneth O’Donnell (who had studied briefly at Boston College Law School) that it was “just a little too soon” for the president to commit. O’Donnell suggested that Walsh should “renew the invitation” in January 1963.
But in January the invitation was refused. Walsh enlisted White, the president’s brother Senator Edward Kennedy, and Edward Boland, a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts who had attended but not finished Boston College Law School, in a late scramble to recruit a replacement—the far less popular vice president, Lyndon Johnson. And he called on Representative Thomas P. O’Neill ’36, who was first elected to fill the House seat vacated by President Kennedy, to lobby the White House.
Other speaking slots during the week-long celebration were proving difficult to fill too. In a letter sent to Walsh on January 24, former president Dwight Eisenhower declined to speak on April 19, on grounds of “a number of commitments on my calendar [and] certain writing chores to complete.” An effort to bring the Italian premier, Amintore Fanfani, to campus on April 18 also fell through, and on January 30 Walsh proposed to hold another convocation in the autumn if Fanfani would participate. This drastic measure would not be necessary.
On March 9, six weeks shy of convocation, Walsh announced to his fellow Jesuits that the President would attend after all. A relieved Walsh wrote to thank White and Boland, but saved his most enthusiastic appreciations for O’Neill: “I hesitated calling upon you earlier. . . . I know now that we never would have the President here if it had not been for you.” The Alumni Association vice president, William Sullivan, also wrote O’Neill, saying neither he nor Walsh would “ever forget that you got the ball across the goal line.”
Air Force One landed at Logan Airport at 1:18 p.m. on the 20th. Walsh, on foot, met Kennedy’s motorcade at the entrance to Linden Lane and the two men rode together to the Roberts Center, precursor to Conte Forum. There Kennedy donned a gown and joined a procession to Alumni Stadium. Fellow marchers included Harvard president Nathan Pusey, Georgetown president Edward B. Bunn, SJ, and British economist Barbara Ward Jackson—all of whom would receive honorary degrees (Kennedy had received his honorary degree from Boston College as a senator in 1956, when he delivered the Commencement address). Representatives from 294 colleges and universities marched in ranks according to their institution’s founding, starting with the Pontifical Gregorian University (1551).
The audience included representatives from 294 colleges and universities.
Kennedy opened by saying he was glad to be back “where my accent is considered normal.” He went on to praise the papal encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) issued nine days previously: “As a Catholic I am proud of it, and as an American I have learned from it.” And he observed that the “explosion of knowledge” had no visible limits. He spoke for nearly 20 minutes before departing at 3:30 by a side entrance, shaking hands all the way, according to the Boston Herald.
Was the visit worth the University’s effort? The Washington Post reported it was Kennedy’s first stop at a “Catholic institution of learning” since becoming president. Time wrote that “with six graduate and professional schools . . . BC is one of the nation’s biggest and best Catholic schools.” Newsweek took the occasion to note that on “BC’s Catholic Campus” the “focus is shifting from indoctrination to education.” It was fitting, Newsweek continued, that Kennedy spoke at the “parochial school” with “no longer a parochial outlook”—for Boston College had “watered the roots that grew the first Irish-Catholic U.S. President.”
Seth Meehan is a Clough Center Graduate Fellow at Boston College.