Today is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. It was in this speech that he spoke the famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Legend has it that JFK adapted this line from... somewhere. There are likely many different accounts of where Kennedy first heard the phrase. My grandfather claimed that Jack Kennedy actually came up to him after a speech he gave and asked if he could use the line himself. No, really, scout's honor. Now that I've gotten your attention, here's the story.
When I was a young boy, in 1975, my mother remarried a Sicilian-American doctor from Boston named Charles Salemi. His father, Dr. Charles Salemi Sr., is the grandfather of whom I speak. From the time I was 4 or 5 years old, we would frequently have dinner at the senior Dr. Salemi's house. He loved to tell stories over ten course Italian feasts prepared by his wife, Diane.
Dr. Salemi was a very prominent man in his community. Having been both president of the Boston Medical Association and chairman of the Sons of Italy, he had known some famous people in his time. The most famous of them was JFK, and that's the story that I'll never forget.
It was during the early 1950's, when Jack Kennedy was cutting his teeth as a young Massachusetts politician, that he was a guest at several Sons of Italy meetings. And it was during one of these meetings that Dr. Charles Salemi is said to have first uttered those now famous words. They were a little different in their original context, however. The original line was, "Ask not what the association can do for you, but what you can do for the association."
Dr. Salemi was speaking of the order of the Sons of Italy itself. Within the original context, the phrase was a calling for Sons of Italy members to take pride in their organization. He was encouraging member participation. Obviously JFK saw that this could be adapted to fit a much wider audience.
Thus far, in reading through Dr. Salemi's speeches, neither my mother, nor I have been able to locate the exact phrase. However, my brother is going to read through the Italian transcripts, so there is still a chance that we'll be able to confirm this story.
Dr. Charles Salemi passed away in the 1990's, and sadly, his son (my dad) passed away suddenly in 2010. My father said that if Dr. Salemi said the story is true, it's true. And that's how I feel as well. This was a man of tremendous character and integrity. He immigrated to the United States from Sicily in 1904 and worked his way from a shoe shine boy on the streets of Boston to the immensely successful man he became. He was the kind of grandpa who always made it a point to give me a few good moral aphorisms when he saw me. He just wasn't the kind of guy who would lie about something like that.
Accompanying Dr. Salemi's printed speeches, my family has a number of black and white photos of he and JFK together at a Sons of Italy meeting. I am in the process of scanning the photos and having them copyrighted. I promise they will be made public very soon.
Ultimately, whether or not I can prove that my grandfather originated this most famous of American phrases, it's the words themselves that matter. Especially at a time like this, when our country is again divided by things like race and politics, and in the wake of the awful shooting in Tuscon, AZ, I hope we can all live by those words.