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updated 1/21/2011 8:39:43 AM ET 2011-01-21T13:39:43

President Barack Obama on Thursday paid tribute to the "unfinished life" of John F. Kennedy and said his inauguration 50 years ago and his accompanying call for Americans to serve their country still "inspires us and lights our way."

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"We are the heirs of this president, who showed us what is possible," Obama said. "Because of his vision, more people prospered, more people served, our union was made more perfect. Because of that vision I can stand here tonight as president of the United States."

Obama spoke at a gala marking the anniversary of the inauguration of America's 35th president. Kennedy held the office for little more than 1,000 days before an assassin's bullet took his life in November 1963 at age 46 as his motorcade rolled through downtown Dallas.

John F. Kennedy's life in the White House

The celebration was held at the performing arts center on the bank of the Potomac River that stands as a living tribute to Kennedy.

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Obama confessed that "I don't have my own memories of that day." He was born three months before Kennedy was killed and said he learned about the slain president from the mother and grandparents who raised him.

Story: Analysis: JFK's words in today's troubled times

But, Obama said, "even now, one half-century later, there is something about that day, Jan. 20, 1961, that feels immediate, feels new and urgent and exciting, despite the graininess of the 16-millimeter news reels that recorded it for posterity."

Video: January 20 marks many key dates in U.S. history (on this page)

He said Kennedy could have a chosen a different life, one of luxury, but that he opted instead for one of leadership and idealism, "soaring but sober that inspired the country and the world" five decades ago.

He noted the challenges that Kennedy faced — a standoff with what then was the Soviet Union, another with Cuba over missiles aimed at the U.S., the war in Vietnam and a southern portion of the U.S. that discriminated against people of color.

"I can only imagine how he must have felt entering the Oval Office in turbulent times," Obama said, as the audience applauded and laughed.

Video: Kennedy delivers inaugural address

He said Kennedy led a "volatile America, in this tinderbox of a world," with a steady hand, "defusing the most perilous crisis since the Cold War without firing a single shot." He also noted Kennedy's work to help blacks attend their choice of college, launch the Peace Corps of goodwill ambassadors around the world and set America's sights on landing on the moon.

"He knew that we, as a people, can do big things. We can reach great heights. We can rise to any challenge, so long as we're willing to ask what we can do for our country," Obama said, recreating one of the more memorable lines from Kennedy's inaugural address.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: January 20 marks many key dates in U.S. history

  1. Closed captioning of: January 20 marks many key dates in U.S. history

    >>> as we mentioned, in this room here, this was a historic day here in college station , texas. and in fact this day, january 20th , is a big day in recent american history as well. it was 50 years ago on this day back in 1961 president john f. kennedy was inaugurated urging us all to ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country . the kennedy legacy was honored today in a ceremony in the capitol rotunda in washington. on this day 30 years ago, 52 u.s. embassy workers in iran were freed. they had been held hostage for 444 days , caught in the middle of the iranian revolution . they were released pretty much exactly when ronald reagan placed his hand on the bible and was sworn in at his inauguration. tehran snubbed the outgoing president carter.

    >>> and two years ago on this day, the nation's first black president , barack obama , took his oath of office .

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