“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference...”
On October 26, 1963, we didn’t know it then but, at 16, we were about to witness an important event connecting two presidents, one from the North and one from the South.
The three of us were 16 and one of us had a driver’s license with access to the family station wagon. We took off. The trip from Chicopee, Massachusetts to Amherst was an hour or so away but culturally – centuries.
It was Saturday, well into the fall, and we were bundled up in the cold early morning air. I had read in The Springfield Union that President John Kennedy was coming to the opening of the Robert Frost Library. The excitement of seeing him up close fueled us across the hills and over the notch.
I remember a huge military helicopter landing in the field and the president waving. He came up to us and shook hands and then went onto the college bandstand to give his speech. It was a festive day with dogs and kids running around on the college field. The event was recorded in the archives at Amherst College.
A handsome, charismatic, man was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He had a glamour that caused me to focus on more than the speech content. Reading it now, I realize it’s importance in connecting Robert Frost to accessible culture and the arts.
Public access to the arts was emphasized in his speech.
“I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.”
Less than one month later, President Kennedy would travel to Dallas in a final motorcade and die at Parkland hospital.
It took a Southern President from Texas, a former school teacher, to institute The National Endowment For The Arts inspired by that speech at Amherst.
On September 29, 1965, on signing the Arts and Humanities Bill, and as part of creating his “Great Society,” President Johnson said, “In countless American towns, there live thousands of obscure and unknown talent. What this bill really does is to bring active support to this great national asset, to make fresher the winds of art in this great land of ours.
The arts and the humanities belong to the people, for it is, after all, the people who create them.”