Students and faculty at San Diego State University gathered Tuesday afternoon to remember one of the most historic events in campus history: President John F. Kennedy’s commencement address.
The speech was significant for many reasons, says SDSU Anthropology Department Chair Seth Mallios. For starters, it was the first time a sitting president spoke at the university. Meanwhile, the speech took place during the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.
“Not only do you have all this stuff going on internationally, domestically it’s one of the most tumultuous times,” Mallios said.
Kennedy was assassinated later that year.
More than 30,000 people attended the 1963 graduation ceremony. The focus of Kennedy’s speech was education. The president also received SDSU’s first honorary doctorate degree, which school officials say is significant.
“The whole research legacy that you hear with San Diego State starts with this Kennedy moment,” Mallios said.
Bob Weir was Class President for the Class of 1963. It was his job to find the commencement speaker. Coincidentally, President Kennedy was scheduled to be in San Diego around graduation time for a military visit.
“I was just delighted,” Weir said. “I couldn’t believe we had a coup where we could do this.”
SDSU Senior Robert O’Keefe read part of Kennedy’s speech during Tuesday’s ceremony, calling it “a tremendous honor.” O’Keefe admits, current students may not realize why the speech was so significant. But he hopes he can help raise awareness.
“It’s things like this where we remember where we came from,” O’Keefe said.
A montage from the 50th anniversary event will play during this year’s graduation ceremonies. Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and Jack in the Box CEO Linda Lang will also be honored, according to a university news release.