50 years ago: President Kennedy speaks at UC Berkeley

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy came to the Berkeley campus and delivered a rousing speech in honor of Charter Day, the anniversary of the university’s founding.

It was the second time Kennedy had visited Cal. The earlier visit was in 1940 when he attended a football game.

“In its first graduating class it [UC Berkeley] included a future Governor of California, a future Congressman, a judge, a State assemblyman, a clergyman, a lawyer, a doctor — all in a graduating class of 12 students!” said Kennedy to a capacity crowd at Memorial Stadium.

“This college, therefore, from its earliest beginnings, has recognized and its graduates have recognized, that the purpose of education is not merely to advance the economic self-interest of its graduates. The people of California, as much if not more than the people of any other State, have supported their colleges and universities and their schools because they recognize how important it is to the maintenance of a free society that its citizens be well educated.


“‘Every man,’ said Professor Woodrow Wilson, ‘sent out from a university should be a man of his nation as well as a man of his time.’

“And Prince Bismarck was even more specific. One third, he said, of the students of German universities broke down from overwork, another third, broke down from dissipation, and the other third ruled Germany.

“I do not know which third of students are here today, but I am confident that I am talking to the future leaders of this State and country who recognize their responsibilities to the public interest.

“Today you carry on that tradition. Our distinguished and courageous Secretary of Defense, our distinguished Secretary of State, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Director of the CIA and others, all are graduates of this University. It is a disturbing fact to me, and it may be to some of you, that the New Frontier owes as much to Berkeley as it does to Harvard University.”

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Given the level of state support for the University of California, it is clear times have changed drastically.

Berkeleysider Larry Ruth, who wrote to the site to point out that today is Charter Day and the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech, was at the event.

“I was in the audience though as a very young school boy at the time, I  only remember small snatches, and that he had us all laughing several times,” wrote Ruth. “I suspect many in Memorial Stadium that day also found it extraordinary.  Nevertheless, the experience was remarkable, and helped shaped my views about life, work and intellectual engagement.”

You can read the text of the speech here. You can listen to Kennedy’s speech here.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.