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Commentary: The Kennedy flame remains lit

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The television room in the fraternity house was often crowded and clamorous, filled with cheers and jeers while the brothers on the couches and the NFL teams on the screen battled. In this searing moment, though, the packed room was stunningly quiet -- just like on the evening of Oct. 22, 1962, when President Kennedy solemnly announced he was mobilizing our military to repel the Soviet installation of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba and implicitly raised the specter of Armageddon.

As we received reports about the shooting in Dallas, we hoped for the best until the iconic, ever-composed Walter Cronkite announced the death of our 35th president, wiped away his tears and prompted ours. Then, despite the shock and the sorrow, I hustled from the Knox campus toward the newspaper office where I had labored and learned since I was 14.

The thought that my college career essentially had been bookended by Kennedy’s election and assassination did not cross my mind. I was contemplating the real possibility that the impending afternoon edition of the Galesburg Register-Mail would report this calamity on the front page and criticize the president on the editorial page. Sure enough, such a commentary had been prepared a day or two earlier and was destined for the presses until I flagged it.

The newspaper was not alone in questioning Kennedy’s stewardship, and those of us drawn to him have gained a more realistic perspective over the past half-century. But this youthful, graceful, and charismatic president motivated thousands across the political spectrum, even members of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, to enter the arena, brave the criticism and strive to make a positive difference.

Kennedy’s ringing inaugural charge -- “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” -- summoned altruism and sacrifice from the American people. His declaration that "the torch has been passed to a new generation," underscored a willingness to shoulder the responsibility, rigors and risks of leadership. Through the years, many inspired by Kennedy have kept faith with those ideals. Others have appealed to our self interest and served theirs. They have punted the hard choices, polarized and played the blame game as paralysis prevailed.

Paul Simon was among the faith keepers during his decades in state and federal offices. Three days before that fateful Nov. 22, he came to Knox as a young state legislator urging students to become involved in fighting racism and uplifting the downtrodden. Forty years after Kennedy's assassination and a few months before he left us, Simon wrote a book lamenting the "culture of pandering" among so-called leaders. He bore the burden honorably and persuaded others by exhortation and example to emulate him.

Now the college seniors of the 1960s have become senior citizens. Our generation has made significant progress on some problems and created others. Old and new challenges will test the mettle of our successors, but I have been heartened by scores of talented young people poised to seize the torch despite disheartening dysfunction in Washington and Springfield.

Many of them receive encouragement and mentoring through initiatives like those led by Abner Mikva and his wife, Zoe, after his sterling service as a federal appellate court judge, congressman and counsel to the president; former Gov. Jim Edgar at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs; and the Simon-founded institute at Southern Illinois University. In return, these emerging leaders offer hope for principled leadership to those of us both saddened and energized by John F. Kennedy's sense of mission and his martyrdom.

Mike Lawrence, a long-time journalist, is the retired director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and currently assists with the Edgar Fellows Program at the University of Illinois.