SDSU celebrates anniversary of JFK’s commencement speech

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SAN DIEGO – Six months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he gave the first commencement speech at San Diego State.  The event took place 50 years ago and would forever change the course of what was then San Diego State College.

San Diego State University marked the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech in 1963 with a reenactment Tuesday.

“One of the most impressive accomplishments – if not the most for the golden state of California – is the commitment to education,” the president said in the 1963 recording. “No free society can move forward without an educated citizenry.”

Associated student president Robert O’Keefe along with two other student leaders read the president’s speech verbatim. The theme was education and his belief in the importance of education for our nation’s future.

“He’s such big part of SDSU history and a lot of people don’t know about,” O’Keefe said.

SDSU chairman professor of anthropology Seth Mallios said JFK’s visit was during the Cuban Missile Crisis and he integrated the University of Alabama a week later.

“Look at the context of when he spoke,” Mallios said. “But his speech was all about education.”

Bob Weir was student body president in 1963 and is credited with coming up with the idea to invite JFK.

“When he got out of the car – this place just erupted,” Weir said.

For SDSU, then just a college, the moment in history dramatically altered the research legacy of what would become the university. JKF was the very first sitting president to give a commencement speech at San Diego State and he was the first to receive an honorary doctorate degree.

“As soon as you give someone an honorary doctorate, you can give real doctorates,” Mallios said.  “It was part of the faculty agenda.”

Around 30,000 people showed up in 1963 to the then Aztec Bowl Arena to hear the president’s speech.  That area is now on the historical registry.

Many of the themes spoke in 1963 remain relevant, but Mallios said where once California was the leader in education, we’ve now fallen short.

“We haven’t satisfied many of things he laid out for us. California now ranks 49th in the nation for putting money toward education,” he said. “I think there a sense of urgency in terms of how we invest in our future.”