When it came to encouraging fitness, few did more to get Americans off the couch than John F. Kennedy.
And he did it not by decree, but by example: from his days on Harvard’s sailing team and the Kennedy family football games to defining physical fitness as a key principle of his administration even before his inauguration.
As the nation grows fatter four decades after his assassination, Kennedy’s call for physical activity is being revisited in an exhibit of photographs, personal effects and sports memorabilia at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
“Without a doubt, we need it now more than we ever did,” junior high school teacher Brenda Ivey, of Pasadena, Texas, said of Kennedy’s message as she examined his sports awards and watched his speeches encouraging Americans to get moving.
'The Soft American'
Kennedy’s push eventually changed the focus of school physical education programs from sport skills to fitness and sparked a national fitness awareness.
When Kennedy challenged U.S. Marines to finish a 50-mile hike in 20 hours, so many civilians took up the dare that the White House had to warn the public that the grueling task could be hazardous for many people.
In an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated, under the headline “The Soft American,” Kennedy challenged Americans to take an active lifestyle seriously.
“The age of leisure and abundance can destroy vigor and muscle tone as effortlessly as it can gain time,” Kennedy wrote. “A single look at the packed parking lot of the average high school will tell us what has happened to the traditional hike to school that helped to build young bodies.”
Once in office, he pushed to strengthen the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and hired legendary Oklahoma University football coach Bud Wilkinson to lead it.
The advisory body — set up by President Eisenhower as the President’s Council on Youth Fitness — started running advertisements encouraging people to exercise. Influential figures signed up to back the initiative, including Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanut comic strip. A copy of Schulz’s book “Snoopy’s Daily Dozen” — exercises by Peanut characters — is on display at the Kennedy exhibit.
Kennedy was the most influential president when it came to physical fitness, said sports historian Jack Berryman.
“I think he brought an awareness of the problem to the American people and to the schools and to the national government level,” said Berryman, professor of medical history at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in Seattle. He is also the official historian for the American College of Sports Medicine.
Included in the exhibit is a football Kennedy was given by the 1962 U.S. Navy football team — signed by the team’s players and coaches, including future Dallas Cowboys star Roger Staubach and assistant Navy coach Steve Belichick, father of New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Also on display are photographs from the Kennedy family collection; Kennedy’s VIP National League and American League baseball park passes; and a tongue-in-cheek letter from the Boston Patriots — predecessors to the New England Patriots — inviting him to try out as a pro receiver.
“I think everybody enjoyed wanting to be better,” Richard Griffin, 57, a retired furniture store owner from Pacific Grove, Calif., said while walking through the exhibit.
But today, he said, “it seems that obesity is out of control.”