It was one of those perfect San Diego days and anticipation surged through the old Aztec Bowl like an electric current. The crowd, who had come to see children, spouses, relatives and friends graduate from San Diego State University, was about to witness an extraordinary event: a commencement speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy.
On that day almost 40 years ago – June 6, 1963 – Kennedy received an honorary doctorate of law degree and San Diego State made history, not just for hosting a president, but also for awarding the first honorary degree in the field by the CSU system.
Henry Janssen, a political science professor at SDSU from 1953 until 1988, remembers Kennedy’s youthful appearance and “that great shock of hair” as he spoke to the audience clad in commencement robes minus the traditional mortarboard.
Janssen played a role in bringing the former president to the Mesa. At the time, SDSU had received approval to develop joint doctorate programs in several fields of study, but could find no institutions willing to cooperate, Janssen said. When Janssen heard that the U.S. president was to attend a U.S. Navy function in San Diego, he saw an opportunity to jump-start the joint doctorate program by awarding Kennedy an honorary doctorate degree.
Janssen shared his idea with faculty members Ned Joy and James Tidwell, who discussed it with SDSU President Malcolm Love. Love phoned then-Governor Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, and he contacted the White House. It was a fortuitous convergence of political designs that Brown wanted Kennedy’s support for his re-election bid, and Kennedy was seeking a podium for a major policy speech on education.
Once Kennedy’s appearance was confirmed, employees in the physical plant had about five weeks to build three large stages, assemble electrical and sound systems and work with the telephone company to install about 100 lines for the White House staff and the press corps. Tommy Bradeen was one of only three physical plant employees cleared by the Secret Service to work near Kennedy. He recalls how one of the campus parking lots was sealed off for the presidential helicopters to land and unload Kennedy’s rocking chair and a lectern adorned with the presidential seal.
There were Secret Service agents everywhere, Bradeen said, and marksmen in many of the buildings along the route of the motorcade that transported Kennedy to SDSU from a naval facility he had visited. The ceremony proceeded without a hitch, he said.
During commencement, Kennedy reminded the graduates of how fortunate they were to have earned college degrees, and asked them to preserve America’s system of education for future generations. “As a nation, we have no deeper concern, no older commitment and no higher interest than a strong, sound and free system of education for all,” he said.
Kennedy’s speech clearly resonated with the graduates in the audience, Janssen recalled. “He appealed to young people in a way that no other president had before. I think his death a short time later had a special impact on students who were in the Aztec Bowl that day.”
When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, the shock of his death stirred the SDSU community deeply, Janssen said, because the president had been on campus just months earlier. The following year, a plaque commemorating Kennedy’s receipt of the honorary degree was affixed to a stone near the old Aztec Bowl, just north of Cox Arena.