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The poem nobody knew was lost

NBC's Brian Williams tells the story of a poem Robert Frost wrote, but never delivered, at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

Tonight we close with a television exclusive. You're about to see, for the first time, a piece of American history that's been missing since that January day in 1961 that became famous for the words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The poet Robert Frost played a big role in that sparkling Inauguration Day, but until now, the history of that day has been incomplete.

The truth is, the day we all look back on as a new beginning, President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, got off to an awful start.

First there was the fire: A short-circuit in a space heater sent wisps of smoke rising from the wooden lectern as Cardinal Richard Cushing gave the invocation. The grainy black-and-white TV images from that day show men scurrying to put it out.

Then there was the matter of an American treasure — the poet Robert Frost — who at Kennedy's invitation had written a poem for the inauguration.

Frost was an 86-year-old man, and, in the blinding sun on that bitterly cold day, he was unable to read his own typed copy of the poem he had written.

Frost ended up reciting another poem from memory, including the line, “The land was ours before we were the land.”

As the years went by, as our black-and-white nation dissolved into color, Frost’s original poem became a footnote in history. Until last week, when an envelope arrived at the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

“I only wish that I’d been the one lucky enough to open the mail,” says Deborah Leff, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “Our chief archivist got a package unsolicited in the mail, and what was in that package was the original writing of a poem, by Robert Frost, in Robert Frost's hand. The poem that was intended to be read at the inauguration of President Kennedy. We didn't even know that this was something that we didn't have. We didn't even know this existed.”

And the story doesn't end there.

“The archivist happened to notice some pencil writing and it happened to be in the hand of Jacqueline Kennedy noting that this was the first thing ever hung in President Kennedy's office, just three days after the inauguration.”

It was a private gift. A wife's personal inscription to her husband. Fading with time, like our memories of that time. But now, at least, it belongs to the people.

The faded pencil inscription from Jackie to Jack reads: "For Jack, First thing I had framed to put in your office — first thing to be hung there."

It turns out the poem has been in someone's private collection for all these years.