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SDSU Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Kennedy Visit

JFK Speaks at SDSU

On June 6, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered San Diego State College's commencement address before approximately 30,000 people at the Aztec Bowl.


Seth Mallios, chair of the San Diego State anthropology department and the university historian.


Kennedy's 1963 visit was more than pomp and circumstance -- it helped shaped the SDSU of today.

— When John F. Kennedy visited the city 50 years ago, about 250,000 San Diegans lined roadways and attended events to get a glimpse of him. San Diego State is commemorating his transformative visit to the school's campus in June 1963, just five months before his assassination.

“I have the honor to confer upon you, President John F. Kennedy, the honorary degree of doctor of laws."

With those words California State College’s second chancellor Glenn Dumke did more than honor Kennedy.

By granting an honorary doctorate, the university also gained the power to grant real doctorates, said Seth Mallios, chair of the San Diego State anthropology department and the university historian. The university had unsuccessfully been trying to gain that power by finding a partner university for several years, he said.

“When you think about San Diego State’s reputation now – the small research university awards, the emphasis on research – all that starts with JFK,” Mallios said.

Kennedy opened his remarks by applauding California’s recent completion of the Cal State system, which had added it's final six campuses in in the previous six years. He highlighted the state's relatively high school spending.

“One of the most impressive if not the most impressive accomplishments of this great Golden State has been the recognition by the citizens of this state of the importance of education as the basis for the maintenance of an effective free society,” Kennedy said.

Then he outlined the transformations he envisioned for the country. He called for an end to de facto school segregation, for higher high school graduation rates and for students to be prepared for technology jobs of the future.

It was a momentous event for the university during a significant political time. The Cuban Missile Crisis had happened months earlier and a week after delivering his speech at SDSU, Kennedy would introduce his halmark Civil Rights legislation and a federal court would order the University of Alabama to integrate.

Mallios thinks Kennedy's messages will still be powerful in today's context, too -- after several years of tuition increases and state funding cuts to every education at every level.

“The two things that strike you is that –wow – some of those issues are still very relevant and the second is that California is no longer leading the way,” he said.

San Diego State is marking the the anniversary of Kennedy's visit in a ceremony Tuesday. Current students will read Kennedy's 1963 commencement speech and the university will replace a plaque commemorating Kennedy’s visit that was stolen in 2008.

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