Saturday, May 18, 2013


May 18, 2013


Nashville, Tennessee (JFK+50) President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement address to the faculty and graduates of VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY* here in Nashville 50 years ago today, May 18, 1963. 

               JFK Speaking at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt University, founded in 1873, was named for Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt who hoped his $1 million endowment would help heal the wounds between the North and South brought by the Civil War.

VU has an enrollment of 12,000 from all 50 states and 90 foreign countries.

In 2012, VU was ranked 17th among all universities in the United States and #1 in the fields of special education, audiology and educational administration.

Her alumni include Dinah Shore, Rosanne Cash, Amy Grant and Dierks Bentley.

              Cornelius Vanderbilt Statue
           Vanderbilt University Campus
                   Nashville, Tennessee
             Photo by John White (2011)

The President was the honored participant in the 90th commencement exercises held at Dudley Field on the university campus located just west of downtown Nashville.

More than 30,000 people attended the event with the President's address beginning at 11:10 a.m. local time.

Other guests included Tennessee senators ESTES KEFAUVER and ALBERT GORE, SR. as well as Tennessee Congressmen Richard R. Fulton, Joe L. Evans, Ross Bass, Robert A. Everett, and Tom Murray.

The day of the Vanderbilt commencement was also the 30th anniversary of the TENNESSEE VALLEY AUTHORITY (TVA).  Guests included members of the Army Corps of Engineers of the Tennessee Valley.

The President began his address by thanking the Governor of Tennessee, Frank G. Clement, and the Mayor of Nashville, Beverly Briley, as well as the people of the city and state "for a very generous welcome."

JFK continued...

"Vanderbilt University...has grown from a small Tennessee one of our Nation's greatest, with 7 different colleges, and with more than half of its 4200 students from outside...the state."

The President also paid tribute to the TVA, which he said...

"transformed a parched, depressed, and flood-ravaged region into a fertile, productive center of industry, science and agriculture."

JFK said that we were also acknowledging the contributions of...

 "a great Tennessee statesman, CORDELL HULL, the father of reciprocal trade (and) the Secretary of State (under FDR) who presided over the transformation of the Nation from a life of a state of responsible world leadership."

The President also paid recognition to J. PERCY PRIEST who represented the Nashville area in Congress for 16 years and who was a former colleague.*

*Two TVA dams were in the process of construction named in honor of these two great Tennesseans, Cordell Hull and J. Percy Priest.

James Percy Priest (1900-1956) was a member of the US Congress from 1941 to 1956.  He was born in Maury County, Tennessee and was a graduate of the State Teachers College in Murfreesboro (now MTSU) and Peabody College in Nashville (now Vanderbilt).

Priest was 1 of 3 Tennessee congressmen who did NOT sign the Southern Manifesto condemning the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.

                            J. Percy Priest
                  Harris and Ewing Photo
               Library of Congress image

JFK said that the unchanging theme of the stories of these men...

"is that everything changes but change itself."

He added...

"We live in an age of movement and change, both evolutionary and revolutionary, both good and evil--and in such an age a university has a special obligation to hold fast to the best of the past and move fast to the best of the future."

The President continued...

"The essence of Vanderbilt is still learning.  The essence of its outlook is still liberty.  And liberty and learning will and must be the touchstones of any free university in this country.  

For liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain."

In keeping with his theme of "ask what you can do for your country", JFK urged the graduates...

"to enter the lists of public service....for we can have only one form of aristocracy in this country.  As Jefferson rejecting John Adams suggestion of an artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth, 'It is....the natural aristocracy of character and talent.'"

The President concluded by saying:

"90 years from now, I have no doubt, that Vanderbilt....will...still be teaching the truth--the truth that makes us free and will keep us free."

                  Vanderbilt University
                   Nashville, Tennessee
             Photo by John White (2011)