By Jan Worth-Nelson
A documentary about John F. Kennedy’s last major speech, which spotlights, among others, a Flint man present at the speech and the effect it had on his life, will be aired on two local PBS stations at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 2.
In the interest of full disclosure, that man, Ted Nelson, is my husband.
Last July a three-person film crew from Northern Light Productions in Boston came to Flint for three days to document Nelson’s life, with a particular eye on the water crisis and East Village Magazine, on which he serves as editor at large. Nelson is among four 1964 graduates of Amherst College featured in the documentary.
The Flint segment of the film includes a visit to a pipe replacement project on Copeman Boulevard, an interview on the Tom Sumner Show, a community meeting at Woodside Church, several shots of the East Village Magazine office on Second Street, a stop at the water POD then at Grace Emmanuel Church, in addition to an interview with Nelson filmed in our home.
The film, JFK: The Last Speech, has been picked up by dozens of PBS markets around the country and will be shown during pledge week at local markets WCMU and WCMZ at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 2.
Three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he delivered a speech at Amherst College to dedicate the Robert Frost Library. Frost had been a teacher at Amherst for years, a colorful presence on the campus, and he had died the previous January. It was JFK’s last major speech, described as “majestic” and one of his best.
JFK: The Last Speech, captures his address to the students which emphasized Kennedy’s belief in service to the country and the importance of the arts. The film also delves into Kennedy’s relationship with Frost, who had read a poem, “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration, and who had made a controversial visit to Russia during Kennedy’s presidency.
Nelson, a senior at the elite, then-all male, East Coast college, was present at the groundbreaking. After the speech and ceremony, JFK went through the audience and stopped at a small group of students, including Nelson. He shook hands with them and asked the young men what they planned to do after graduation. As Nelson relates in the film, after the young men detailed plans for graduate school, medical school, law school, JFK stopped them all and said, “No, no, you’re not–you’re all going to join the Peace Corps.”
Nelson said the young men, some of whom barely knew what the Peace Corps was, laughed, and JFK went on his way.
But when Nelson learned about the assassination three weeks later, he in fact did decide to join the Peace Corps. Less than a month after graduation, he began Peace Corps training that took him to Turkey for three and a half years. There he worked on a water project, attempting to cap contaminated wells that were contributing to severe infant mortality.
Many other students present at the speech that day were similarly influenced. The film features a retired lawyer in Albany volunteering legal expertise to help beleaguered Muslims; a rancher and philanthropist who provides resources for students on a Montana reservation to experience art; and a journalist who has spent his lifetime covering strife in El Salvador.
Nelson, 76, who became a full-time Flint resident last year after 17 years of commuting from Los Angeles and now owns two houses here, said he finds it ironic 50 years later he now lives and works in an American city with its own water crisis.
A bonus of the project occurred at the premier of the documentary at the JFK Library in Boston May 6. There Nelson reunited for the first time with his high school English teacher, Patricia Hope Edmonds, now 86, who had encouraged his writing, urged him to go on to college and whose husband George, an Amherst alum, wrote Ted a letter of recommendation.
The movie project was hatched at the 50th reunion of the Amherst Class of ’64, where the alums wanted to produce something of value beyond nostalgia. A theme of “The World We Inherited, The World We Will Bequeath,” emerged, and from that, reflections on JFK’s momentous visit to the campus and the impact of his speech became their focus. They proceeded to form a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, Reunion ’64, Inc., to raise money for the project. They began working with Northern Light Productions soon thereafter.
In addition to funds contributed by Reunion ’64, the film received financial support from Amherst College, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and many individual donors.
The Amherst team also developed a website, jfkthelastspeech.org. A companion book JFK: The Last Speech is scheduled for publication in July.
The book’s introduction, co-written by Nelson, retired Dexter, MI cardiologist Roger Mills, and the Reunion ’64 committee, reflects on “the relevance and haunting irony that JFK’s words bring to the problems of now. When civic culture is fractured and the value of the liberal arts is questioned,” they write, “this message from 1963 has particular resonance.” Mills, also a 1964 Amherst graduate, was briefly interviewed in the film and is co-editor of the companion book.
Seventh Ward Councilwoman Monica Galloway, U.S Rep. Dan Kildee staffer Gary Jones, Kettering professor Ben Pauli and several other Flint residents have cameos in the Flint segment.
Nelson, raised in Brunswick, Maine and Natick, Massachusetts, came from a poor family and went to Amherst on a full scholarship. He recalls he often felt out of place but says the liberal arts education he received was a major gift to his life. He says being part of the Amherst project has been a significant experience of “coming full circle” and reflecting on his life accomplishments and values.
The film project has been shepherded from the beginning by Neil Bicknell of Boulder, Colorado. Bicknell, one of the Amherst Class of ’64, is the film’s executive producer and a former investment banker. Like many of the Amherst ’64 grads, he is a lifelong student of both JFK’s leadership and Frost’s life and work.
The film has been picked up by stations covering about 27 percent of the U.S. so far, according to the film’s publicist. It is scheduled the first week of June in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Austin, Tucson and many more. Michigan stations scheduled to air it include Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City, and Alpena. Full details will soon be available on the website jfkthelastspeech.org.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com. She is co-editor with Roger Mills and Neil Bicknell of the companion book JFK: The Last Speech coming out in July from Mascot Books.