Gov. Doyle: JFK inspires life of public service

JFK in Wisconsin
Kennedy slain - Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel front page

Doyle JFK memory – for embedding only

Those who were living in 1963 have a story — where they were and what they were doing when they heard the nation’s 35th president had been shot to death. For some, it’s more personal. Former Gov. Jim Doyle met the president and deeply felt that tragic day in Dallas.

Doyle shared with WISC-TV how he heard the news and how John Kennedy inspired a life of public service.

It was the day before his 18th birthday.  Doyle was a freshman at Stanford.

“And I see that room, and that’s what I remember about that room. That’s where I was when I heard,” Doyle said.

Unlike many of his Stanford classmates, Doyle — just five years prior — met Kennedy after a speech on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

“I’m sitting in this little room, this 12-year old boy, and the door opens, and there’s John Kennedy,” he said.

Kennedy spoke at the Union Theater, one of many stops he made in Wisconsin during the 1960 presidential campaign. Doyle’s powerful father was a staunch supporter of former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson in his bids for president in 1956 and 1960.

“I do remember very clearly that he asked me if I played shortstop, which I did, which is a tribute to the famous Kennedy preparing — they were interested in having my dad support them. That’s what this was all about,” he said.

That meeting and Kennedy’s famed charisma changed Doyle’s life forever.

“I thought the line, you know the famous line, about ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country, was his call to service. I’ve tried to live a life that way,” he said.

Doyle told WISC-TV’s Eric Franke that after that brief meeting with Kennedy at the Union Theater he was forever a supporter and it led him to a life of public service, which started with the Peace Corps — a program created by Kennedy in 1961.

“I think I was probably in middle school, when he said the Peace Corps would be the greatest adventure any young American could have. That stuck with me through high school and college. That was my purpose. I was going to go into the Peace Corps, because he had said it,” Doyle said.

UW-Madison is second only to the University of California-Berkeley in recruiting Peace Corps volunteers.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Doyle stood in a line at his Stanford dorm waiting to call home.

“It was like a death in the family, and they, really as I recall my conversation with them, they were very much in a parental role of trying to comfort me like they would have if a member of our family died,” he said.

A young man and a nation left to imagine forever what could have been.

“You know you wonder a lot, I do. What had happened if he had lived on and we had watched him age and he got frozen in time, he got frozen in time by the assassination sadly, but frozen in time as a young vigorous president and that symbolism is incredibly powerful.”

Kennedy’s final trip to Wisconsin was just 59 days before his death. He was here to establish the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Last fall, Doyle was a resident fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, which was established in 1966 as a memorial to Kennedy. His daughter Caroline remains deeply involved in the program.