Nov 18, 2013
JFK at Choate: A Lasting Legacy 50 Years After Assassination
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"George St. John was Kennedy's headmaster here," says Donald. "Many alums recall St. John occasionally during regular chapel services, which were daily, exhorting his boys to ask not what their school could do for them, but what they could for their school. So then these alums would say, 'Well, that's the source of the famous line from Kennedy's inaugural address.'"
But those anecdotal stories weren't enough evidence for Donald. "I could never find that phrase written down in any of George St. John's sermons, which we have the printed copies, and they were published in the school newspaper as well. No documentary evidence at all, and other alums had no recollection of it," she says.
One day, however, she discovered George St. John's notebooks where he collected inspiration for all the sermons he had to give. "And there on page one of the notebook labeled 'Prose' there was an excerpt of an essay written by Dean LeBaron Briggs of Harvard, whom St. John had admired," recalls Donald. "And in that essay was this line: 'Ask not what your alma mater can do for you, but what you can do for your alma mater.' So that at least, for me, provided a closer link that George might've said that."
Even with that discovery, Donald isn't necessarily convinced that it means it was the actual source of the quote, noting that others beyond LeBaron Biggs—such as Oliver Wendall Holmes—have used variations of it.
Still, it doesn't diminish the Kennedy-Choate connection.
"I find it quite interesting that Kennedy stayed close with the school even though he might have had a rocky relationship with the headmaster," says Donald, referring to stories about how Kennedy and some mischief-making friends "founded" the "Muckers' Club" after a perturbed Headmaster St. John referred to those perpetrating on-campus pranks as "muckers." "It all worked in the end and Kennedy did receive his diploma, along with his friends, and one might think he'd say, 'Okay, well, I've moved on—I've been to war, I've been to college, I've made my way . . .' But the fact that he came back to campus three times and kept this connections here, I just find all that remarkable. He maintained his connections to this place, so it had to have meant something special to him."