JFK & the “Enviable Distinction” of a Harvard Liberal Arts Education

The John F. Kennedy presidential library has a digitized copy of JFK’s 1935 Harvard University application form. It’s easy to read JFK’s application essay as a quickly done, fill in the space, drill. JFK’s chances of getting accepted were pretty good regardless, I’m sure. This twitter worthy essay would be laughed at by just about any admissions committee today, but, to be fair, there wasn’t much space provided on the application for for JFK to elaborate. Here is what JFK wrote:

The reasons that I have for wishing to go to Harvard are several. I feel that Harvard can give me a better background and a better liberal education than any other university. I have always wanted to go there, as I have felt that it is not just another college, but is a university with something definite to offer. Then too, I would like to go to the same college as my father. To be a “Harvard man” is an enviable distinction, and one that I sincerely hope I shall attain.

April 23, 1935
John F. Kennedy

The only sentence, of the 5 total, that addresses the benefits of a Harvard academic education is the 2nd. JFK thinks Harvard can provide him “a better background” and “a better liberal education” than any other institution. It’s a sentence that provides a pleasant reminder of how important a Liberals Arts education once was (and to some degree still is) regarded by America’s wealthy elite families. I would argue that a Liberal Arts education is still the highest and best form of education personally, socially, and politically speaking, we can promote for the maintenance of a free society. (Watch this interesting TED talk on this subject.)

The rest of JFK’s paragraph is really about the importance of being a “Harvard man.” The “something definite” that Harvard had to offer JFK was that “enviable distinction” of being a graduate of an elite school. An education is, of course, more than just something you get in a classroom, it’s also a process of acquiring social skills and making important and influential connections.

For the most part, the world has come to expect from the liberally educated class a certain set of elevated behaviors and leadership qualities. Someone has to model both excellence and pathetic failure in the social realm, and like it or not the elites are typically those cast in those roles. The sneer of “Elitism” may be thrown, sure, but the truth is most of us long to be part of some type of elite, even if we act like it doesn’t matter to us. The whole point of being educated, really, is about quality. The quality of your own mind and soul and about recognizing quality in the things you see, hear, and taste. This type of quality education was the “something definite to offer” JFK was looking for from being a “Harvard man.”

Some Flying Memories

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Me on the wing of a Beechcraft Skipper. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1988)

Like many teenage boys, after seeing Top Gun, in the spring 1986, I wanted to be a naval aviator. The thrill of flying jets, of being a flyboy with those cool Ray-ban sunglasses, wearing those flight suit coveralls, and hanging out drinking and singing at officers clubs with nice looking women, captured my juvenile imagination: “That’s the life! Sign me up!” I mean, what a job!

Anyway, I was 19 years old, which speaks for itself, and I happened to live in a military town—Virginia Beach, Va. My dad, before I was born, had served in the Navy. The Hampton Roads region had approximately 15 military installations, to include the largest naval station in the world (Norfolk) and one of the Navy’s only 4 master jet bases (Oceana). I’d grown up and gone to school with a lot of military kids. For me, the military option just always seemed a natural one. If by chance that wasn’t going to work, my second option was attempting to swindle my way into a law enforcement job. My uncle and the brother of a former girlfriend were cops, and it kind of had a similar appeal and looked like fun (yeah…I was 19), and so that idea was also floating around. But getting to 21 to get hired for police work was taking too damn long and so Top Gun gave the military idea the momentum…for the moment.

Somehow I was able to talk mom and dad into letting me take flying lessons. Amazing swindle as I look back now. I sold my parents on the idea that if I already knew how to fly—had my private pilot license—my chances of being selected by the Navy after I graduated from college were much better. They bought it. Don’t get me wrong, being a licensed pilot certainly would help in getting picked up by the Navy, but there was obviously a lot more to it than that. My luck here, and thank God for it, was that I had wonderful parents who believed in me.

I can still remember driving over to Piedmont Aviation, which was part of Piedmont Airlines (bought out by USAir in 1989), to check out the pilot training school. Piedmont’s charter division, administrative offices, and private pilot training school, were at Norfolk International Airport, not too far from where I lived in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Piedmont Aviation had its own building and aircraft hangers on the south side of the airport, opposite the main terminals. Pulling up in my car to the Piedmont facility, I remember pausing to take in the word “Aviation” on the sign at the main entrance. My thoughts raced from the image of winning the Top Gun trophy to a ball of flames after slamming into a mountain. Oh, how the possibilities were expanding!

Piedmont Aviation: July 25, 1987
Piedmont Aviation at the time I was taking lessons there. (Photo by Scotch-Canadian’s, July 25, 1987)

This was a decision that could significantly change my life’s trajectory…or allow it to simply follow its set path, depending on what you believe. I had no idea (not much has changed on that front) what the future would hold, but ready or not, I was going to go ahead and nose dive into it. Youth just added a greater level of naiveté, a degree of enthusiastic ignorance, and a bit of angst over making something of your life. Looking back now, and currently having a 19-year-old son, I have a greater respect for the uncertainties and struggles he feels at this time in his life.

Entering the flight school on the 2nd floor, I was greeted by Joe Russo, one of the instructors. He was a tall, medium-build guy with salt and pepper hair and a dark mustache. He had the air of a man determined not to get killed by a student pilot in a fiery airplane crash. He’d spoken to me originally when I called to talk about taking lessons. Joe, as I recall, was a little late coming to the game. He’d started out doing something else, I don’t recall what, but then, say, 10 years into driving an ice cream truck (just joking) he decided he wanted to be an airline pilot. So here he was. For most of the instructors, Piedmont Aviation’s private pilot school was a way of racking up hundreds of flying hours toward the goal of becoming an airline pilot. Of course, surviving all those student pilots was a part of the challenge in getting to the cockpit of that Boeing 777. (Please note that both of my instructors survived and went on to fly for the airlines.)

Joe showed me around the school and discussed what was involved in getting my pilot’s license. At the time I remember thinking it seemed rather easy…yeah, 19 years old.

Joe: So, just to be sure, have you ever flown in a airplane?

Me: Sure. An airliner.

Joe: Did you like it?

Me: Hmmm, it made me a bit nervous.

Joe: So you’re a little scared to fly?

Me: Oh no. It’s not the flying that bothers me, it’s the crashing.

Me making some calculations during ground school. (Photo by Jeff Wills, circa 1987)

And so it began. I took 1 to 2 lessons a week. Lessons lasted about an hour to an hour and a half and would consist mostly of flying time and/or some ground schooling. The hardest part of ground school was learning navigation. In the air, the hardest part wasn’t actually flying the airplane, it was learning how to land the aircraft. Taking off was nothing. You throttled up the engine to full power, keep the plane straight down the runway, and at a certain speed you started pulling back on the yoke. The plane would lift off almost effortlessly. After takeoff, you kept the power up, the angle right, and you climbed out to your cruising altitude. Not that hard really. But landing was an entirely different story. Continue reading “Some Flying Memories”

John Steinbeck: This is What I Am About


And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. — John Steinbeck

Research Scientists—Heroes of Humanity

When I was a little boy I stayed with my maternal grandmother a lot during the summers when school was out. She was a strong willed southern Baptist woman who’d been raised on a tobacco farm near Danville, Virginia. Every night before bedtime we’d say our prayers together. We asked for the forgiveness of our sins, we gave thanks for all the Lord had given us, and we asked that He bless our family and friends. As far as I knew the requests were granted. I went to bed refreshed and got up the next day ready to load up with sin.

Since then the list of those I’m thankful for and those needing to be blessed has expanded—the friends & family list, well, that may shorten depending on what day you ask me. But the thankful list, for the most part, has clearly expanded. It should have for all of us I’d hope. I’m very grateful for the military personnel who protect our nation, for the police officers who protect us from each other, for the nurses who care for us, for the teachers who educate and help shape our children, and for our political leaders—the very few, that is, who deserve a divine blessing rather than a voodoo curse.

But recently, while watching a TV commercial (below), I was reminded of those heroes—and they truly are—who I’ve always respected and admired but who don’t tend to make the nightly prayer list for most of us…and they deserve to. We’re all thankful for the doctors and nurses who care for us and our loved ones: they provide life saving surgeries and treatments and provide medications that cure disease and allow us to live normal, healthy, lives. But what about the people who actually researched, discovered, and designed these life saving procedures and medicines? Our healthcare comes from “providers.” But what about the Givers to Humanity…the research scientists?

Research scientists are the one’s who actually gave humanity those life saving procedures and medications. Without the discoveries of these research scientists the lives of millions would have been shortened and the quality of life for millions more would have been much worse. Just think of Edward Jenner, who discovered vaccinations. Because of him millions of lives have been spared suffering and a shortened life. Think of Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease. How about John Priestly’s discovery of anaesthetics! How about Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin. How many people have we all known that would have died early deaths without insulin? And of course there are so many scientific discoveries—medical or otherwise—that I could list that are things we now take for granted but are things that without our world would be a much less forgiving and hopeful place. And most of these life giving and improving discoveries come to us from those dedicated to scientific discovery—from research scientists.

They are heroes of humanity. Let us be mindful and give thanks for them.

Those Cherished Walks in the Snowy Woods

Whenever we have a good snow I love to go for a walk in the woods. Walking in the wintry wonderland has always calmed and refreshed my soul. It’s a therapeutic activity. This love for walking in the snow started when I was a kid. We’d get a good snow and school would be cancelled, so I’d usually play in the snow half the day and then sometime after dark I’d go out and walk in the snow. I can still remember those nighttime walks in my old Virginia Beach, Virginia, neighborhood. No one would be out but me. There was a alluring peace and stillness in the thick, frosty air. It was a tranquilness and calm enticed by the gentle sounds of falling snow, the low roar of the wind in the tree tops, and that icey crunching sound my boots made as I stepped in the virgin snow.

Back then I didn’t have woods behind our house, but since 2001 I’ve had acres of woods to walk in when the snows came. And in some ways it’s even better now, because most of the time since, say, around 2014, I’ve had a little partner. My youngest son loves nature and, like his dad, loves to walk in the snowy woods. We had a good snow on January 5th and the temperatures have been frigid, so we’ve had 2 good days where we’ve taken some time to go for a walk together in the wintery woods. These walks with my son have been special. It’s just the two of us walking and talking and helping each other hike through the woods. “We’re a team, dad.” “Isn’t this beautiful dad.” “It’s so calm and peaceful out here, dad.” “Love you dad.”

These are walks I will always cherish and remember.

My Partner with His Walking Stick