Seth Mallios, chair of the San Diego State anthropology department and the university historian.
Related Story: John F. Kennedy's Legacy In San Diego
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh.
JFK: I believe that education comes at the top of the responsibility of any government at whatever level. It is essential to our survival as a nation in a dangerous and hazardous world, and it is essential to the maintenance of freedom at a time when freedom is under attack.
CAVANAUGH: That was president John F. Kennedy giving the commencement address at San Diego state in June, 1963. Today, San Diego state university marks the 50th anniversary of what was a huge event for the campus back in the early '60s. Ceremonies today include the unveiling of a memorial plaque and a reading of the commencement speech. Joining me is Seth Mallios, chair of the San Diego State anthropology department and the university historian.
MALLIOS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: It would be a major event in San Diego state if they hosted a presidential visit even now. What was it like for the much smaller campus in 1963?
MALLIOS: It's really tough to put into context of today's terms. A quarter million people saw JFK in a 20-hour period in San Diego. It was also the landing at the airport and the motorcade down El Cajon boulevard. That was seen by hundreds of thousands of people as well. A 24 hour period, and he gives this landmark address that was tailored toward the State of California. It's really worth emphasizing that he was campaigning. And weeks earlier he had spoken at American University about peace. A work earlier he spoke about Vanderbilt about the legacy deal. When he came to California, he celebrated the golden state for its priority on education. California was the leader of the free world in education.
CAVANAUGH: Do we know why the president decided to give the commencement address in San Diego specifically?
MALLIOS: Part of it was California was a tough state for Democrats to win. We often think of California as being a democratic state now. But from 1940 to 1990, there was only one presidential election where it went democratic, and the irony is it went can JFK. He did not win in 1960.
CAVANAUGH: Give us an idea of how significant this time was in our nation's history. What was happening around the time of this speech in 1963?
MALLIOS: It's an amazing moment for the word. We're months off the Cuban missile crisis. So nuclear war is a reality on everybody's mind. There are bomb shelters underneath a few of the buildings at San Diego state. And at the same time a week after JFK given this address, he integrates the university of Alabama, he introduces landmark civil rights legislation. So you have the cold war at its height and domestically the civil rights movement peaking at this moment.
CAVANAUGH: And before the year was out, he would be dead.
MALLIOS: Yeah. And that's the other amazing thing, less than six months later, he's assassinated. I haven't been able to confirm this, but I have heard people tell me that the same convertible that he rode down El Cajon boulevard was the same car he was assassinated in in Dallas.
CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about the effect on San Diego state itself. Was it a university?
MALLIOS: No, it was a college. And we could talk for hours about JFK and the impacts on San Diego state. He was invited with the agenda of a few faculty members to give him an honorary degree, so we could start giving out real doctoral agrees. It was a very clever ploy. And in some way, we pulled a past one on the State of California. And the first real doctorate came only three years later, and it was in chemistry. So there was no way this could be conceived of as something unofficial. And it was something a political science professor came up with, he told his office mate who was Ned Joy, he called Pat Brown, pat brown called the president's office, and immediately this all aim together.
CAVANAUGH: So can we trace this speech to today's present status of SDSU as one of the leading small research universities in the nation?
MALLIOS: Yes. I think there would be no research legacy without this Kennedy moment. And that's why this may sound brash to say, but I believe this is the most important moment in the institution's history. Some could argue it was 1897 when it was founded. But in terms of today's identity, this top research university that defines both the faculty and the students here, that's tied to this Kennedy moment.
CAVANAUGH: Just one more question about this. I'm thinking of San Diego state back in 1963, regarded probably by a lot of the rest of the country as a relatively small west coast university, probably not that significant in stature, lined up against ivy league or anything like that. What did it do to elevate the status of San Diego state university?
MALLIOS: It's a key point about legitimacy. They were able to give doctorates at this time, but nobody would partner with San Diego state. This was the key moment when they saw San Diego state doing this alone, and suddenly it raised our profile and it became this landmark event, not only for the region, but there's a line from JFK's speech about how no nation can move forward without an educated citizenry, one of his most famous lines ever, and the most famous sentence ever uttered in the region.
CAVANAUGH: This is president JFK speaking at San Diego state in June, 1963.
NEW SPEAKER: The governance to choose, and the ability to make those choices, wise, responsible, and prudent, requires the best of all of us. No country can possibly move ahead, no free society can possibly be sustained unless it has an educated citizenry whose qualities of mind and heart permit it to take part in the complicated and increasingly sophisticated decisions that pour not only upon the president and the Congress but upon all the citizens who exercise the ultimate power.
CAVANAUGH: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that president Kennediy speech was tailor made for California.
MALLIOS: He starts his speech by complimenting the golden state for its attention to education. He knew that that was the thing that distinguished California from all the other states. And a lot of his speech was about economic and racial inequity, especially in the south. He knew exactly what was coming on the horizon, so he wanted to point to this shining example. One of the reasons that this speech is both a wonderful historic moment to reflect on, but also a bit ominous, is we need to come to terms with the fact that we rank 49th in the nation on education. It's a call to action on unfulfilled promises.
CAVANAUGH: Let's go back to 1963 and think about the educational policy at the time. Was it almost free for students back then?
MALLIOS: It was $5. You talk to the students who are paying $5,000, $7,000 to come here now, that's a stunning difference. Henry Jensen just told me moments ago --
CAVANAUGH: And he is?
MALLIOS: The political science professor who started the move to get JFK out here, he said it was a time where you could work at McDonald's and pay for your education and cover your rent as well.
CAVANAUGH: Now, with -- since president Kennedy gets pretty deep into educational policy in this speech, and he does praise California's commitment to spending money on education, are perhaps people finding an element of irony in this speech 50 years later?
MALLIOS: I just came from a student symposium where we had some of our top young students reflecting on the legacies of the Kennedy speech. And I didn't sense any irony there. I sensed urgency. They were incredibly well-spoken and pro-active. And they were talking about teachers' wages, they were talking about funding for schooling. There was a point where -- there wasn't a complacency. It was, you know what? We've dropped the ball on this. And that's where these historic moments, when you couple them with plans for the future, that's the power. That's what gets me excited. I don't want to be lost in the past. I want to reflect on the past to use it as motivation for the future.
CAVANAUGH: As I read this speech, president Kennedy was comparing the amount spent per student between California and Mississippi to illustrate our state's commitment to education. But the mindset is what got me. Was that the mindset in 1963? That more dollars meant more academic excellence?
MALLIOS: I think yes and no. I think first of all this was part of that first wave where many more people were going to college and had that opportunity. So I think that you can take a step back and look at this Kennedy speech as he's grooming the nation for the role of education for the future. This was a point where there was no longer to be this separation, not only segregation, but separation of laborers. At the same time, I don't think it was on people's radar the same way that you're going to have to pay a lot for education, but your degree will be worth X dollars in the future. From the student seminar we just had, that was one of the things that I was so stunned that the students were so well versed in the economic impact. That's not the language of the '60s. That's the language of this new generation, a postcolumbine generation that is very sober and realistic about the state of the world.
CAVANAUGH: How is the president's speech being remembered today? What kind of events?
MALLIOS: Well, it's happening at the same spot where the speech was originally given. Aztec Bowl is still there. There's a large granite marker where president Kennedy's helicopter took off from in 1963. So we're having the event right there. And I love it when we occupy the same space. I think that means something to be in the same space. And president Hirschman will start the ceremony, and I'll give some context. And three of our student recovers will then be dividing up the Kennedy speech and reading it in its entirety. It's only a 15-minute speech. For me, this is so powerful because they get to say these profound lines and have the audience reflect on the legacies of this speech. And then they are our future leaders. It's right there, encapsulated in terms of having this plan for working toward a better future, it is on their shoulders. And for me, I can see multiple generations. Henry Jansen is 50 years older than I am. And I can't help but think, 50 years from now, will we be reflecting on the 100 year anniversary of this event? What will be the state of the state from the state of the union, and how passioned with our student leaders be about it at that point?
CAVANAUGH: Even though this is going to be reread by students, what I was struck with is that there's actually a recording of this. So many of the speeches that have been made, even by very famous people in the '60s, there's no trace of them. So it must really mean it was a treasured item even back then here at SDSU.
MALLIOS: Yeah, and one of the great things too is that Kennedy had passed out his speech beforehand, but then he gave an entirely different speech!
[ LAUGHTER ]
MALLIOS: This is one of these key moments of not only Kennedy being such an amazing orator, but also knowing when to seize the moment. And he opens with a joke about appreciating the immediacy of the degree they're giving to him. And during his speech, he deliberately uses words that would make people laugh. A lot of the comedians at the time used to make fun of his accent, especially with words like rigor and vigor. So he deliberately uses those in his speech, and when you're listening to this audio, you can hear him talk about vigga, and then he pauses because he knows the sound bite that the comedians are going to jump on. And he was smiling for much of this speech, and the crowd was just enamored with this, regardless of political affiliation. Suddenly the president was in everyone's backyard.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. You brought the day alive for us. I appreciate it.
MALLIOS: You're very welcome.