John F. Kennedy "Ask Not" Speech Inspired by School Headmaster

This photograph, part of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, taken in 1960 shows Brothers John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy in Hyannis Port, Cape Cop, Massachusetts. This image is one of the more than 1,500 images that the National Archives has released in their Access to a Legacy project, which is an online digital archive of high interest material from President John F. Kennedys official and personal records. The collection consist of photographs, audio recordings, speech drafts, films and other material.  UPI/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

John F. Kennedy famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Now, an archivist at the former president’s boarding school is saying Kennedy may have been inspired by words from the school’s headmaster.

According to the Associated Press, a notebook belonging to a former Choate School headmaster was found that included a quote from a Harvard University dean who wrote, “The young who loves his Alma Mater will always ask, no ‘What can she do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for her?’”

The notebook contained the sermons headmaster George St. John would give to students. The teenage Kennedy sat through many of these sermons in the 1930s and when he gave his inauguration address in 1961, many alumni of the school said they recognized the line as “an echo” of what they heard as students. Until now, however, there was no direct evidence.

Archivist Judy Donald found the quote on the first page of one of St. John’s notebooks.

“When we found these prose books, we felt OK, here’s the link we’re missing,” Donald said.

Although Kennedy’s speech is a dead ringer for the quotation, JFK biographer Michael O’Brien remains skeptical about the connection. According to him, Kennedy was more focused on making plans with friends than listening to the headmaster’s sermons.

“I don’t think he would have been paying attention to anything like that,” O’Brien said.

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