In September 1931, Jack Kennedy began his high school studies at The Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. As he did, he again fell under the shadow of his older brother, Joe Jr., who had already been at Choate for two years and made for himself a name on the football team. In an effort to separate himself from Brother Joe, Jack cranked his rebellious behavior into full gear.
The most notorious stunt Jack and his diehard cohorts pulled was to explode a toilet seat with a powerful firecracker. Headmaster George St. John was not amused and made an effort to drive that point home at the next chapel assembly. As he displayed the dilapidated toilet seat, he referred to those responsible for such shenanigans as “muckers”. Unknown to him at the time, Headmaster St. John provided Jack with a new name for his rowdy group of scalawags – “The Muckers Club.” Numbered among his partners in crime was Kirk LeMoyne (Lem) Billings, his close friend and roommate.
Health problems continued to plague Jack while at Choate, culminating in an emergency hospitalization at Yale – New Haven Hospital during 1934. In June of that year, Jack was admitted to the Mayo Clinic located in Rochester, Minnesota. Diagnostic testing at the clinic revealed Jack had colitis. Despite these problems, Jack graduated from Choate in June 1936 (no doubt to the relief of Headmaster St. John). The school year book, for which Jack had been business manager, voted Kennedy as “most likely to succeed.” (No doubt Headmaster St. John felt Kennedy must have stuffed the ballot box to win!)
Jack made his first trip abroad with his parents in September of 1935, traveling to London with plans to study at the London School of Economics (LSE) under the tutorage of Harold Laski – again following in Joe Jr’s footsteps. Here the nemesis of ill health again raised its ugly head and Jack was forced to return to the United States in October.
Upon his return, Jack enrolled in Princeton University six weeks late. Though Joe Sr. and Jr. had attended Harvard, Jack chose Princeton, maybe in hopes of not being known as nothing more than Joe Kennedy’s younger brother, the way he had at Choate. Here he still continued to be plagued with health problems. After only three months, Jack was admitted to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston for observation due to jaundice. He was then sent to the family’s winter home in Palm Beach to convalesce.
Spring of 1936 finds the young Kennedy in Arizona at the 40,000 acre “Jay Six” ranch outside Benson, working for owner Jack Speiden, along with brother Joe. In September, Jack is back in Massachusetts as a student at Harvard College. 1936 was a busy time. Events of the year included the tercentennial of Harvard College, the Nazis on the rise in Germany and FDR is campaigning for his second term as president. With all that was happening, the situation was now ripe for radicalizing by the students; but though ever the prankster (activities included concealing women in his closet and dropping water balloons on the unsuspected), Jack was not a radical.
As a Harvard freshman, Jack earned a starting position on the freshman football squad. Coach Henry Lamar said of Jack during his post-season review: “The most adept pass catcher was John Kennedy; but his lack of weight was a drawback.” Jack only played football one year, preferring swimming instead. His skill with a backstroke quickly placed him on the greatest team of freshmen in the history of Harvard at that time. The trio of Bob Urquhart, Bill Rines and John Kennedy continued to score points and went on to beat Yale during the schools’ competition 42 to 33.
At Harvard, Jack coupled his love of swimming with one he quickly cultivated for politics. Following the end of swim season, the election for Freshman Class president was held and Jack became one of the 35 candidates. The primary narrowed the ballot entries to six, none of which read “John Kennedy”.
Not one to give up so easily, he tried for and won chairmanship of the Freshman Smoker Committee. Memorial Hall’s display no doubt served to prepare the future congressman, senator and then president for what he would experience during the conventions involved in his campaigns for office – free food, tobacco, smoke and noise. Politics continued to reign supreme as FDR won reelection in November and soon pushed through his famous “court-packing bill”. While doing so, he added six new justices to the Supreme Court. Harvard President James Bryant Conant felt this was wrong and “contrary to the spirit of a free, democratic country.”
In March, freshmen were given the opportunity to select a house for the following year. His love of athletics may have added strength to his choice of Winthrop due to the quantity of varsity team members who lived there; however, all of the college’s activities were well represented in Winthrop, so there is no way to actually tell the reason for his choice.
Returning to Harvard in the fall following a tour of Italy, France and Spain during the summer, Jack became part of both the Pudding and the Spee Club, an all male “final club” at Harvard. (Final clubs were named such due to the fact these were the last social club a student was allowed to join prior to graduation.) He also won a place as an editor on the CRIMSON business board.
Jack was also back on the swim team, under the direction of Varsity Coach Harold Ulen. Though Coach Ulen referred to Jack as a good swimmer, he did not classify him as an outstanding one; mostly due to the fact Jack was exceedingly thin and suffered from continuing spells of sickness. As he recovered from one of these spells in the Stillman Infirmary, Coach Ulen was holding trials for the upcoming competition with Yale. Torby MacDonald, captain of the football team and Jack’s roommate, continued to smuggle food to him and then snuck him out of the infirmary for the trail. Despite all of Torby’s efforts, Jack failed to qualify. All was not failure, however. Jack swam on Harvard’s varsity team for two years and lettered in his senior year during the Yale meet and the team earned a national championship.
The upside of having Jack on the team was the attention they received from the photographs. Being an ambassador’s son, Jack was always singled out for the pictures; however, he cared nothing for the preferential treatment and made a point to disappear as soon as the cameras showed up.
Swimming was not Jack Kennedy’s only water sport. He also placed sailing high on the list and won for Harvard the MacMillan Cup.
For a young man fed a steady diet of Democrat influence growing up, Kennedy was not at all partisan in his way of thinking. In an effort to “broaden” Kennedy’s political exposure, Professor Arthur Holcombe assigned Jack a paper on Representative Bertrand Snell, a Republican from upstate New York and also major spokesman for private power interests.
Though amiably reserved when it came to associating with professors or barbers, Kennedy’s “came to life” as Panzer tanks rolled into Czech Sudation. Desiring to see the action first hand, Jack received permission from Joe Sr. to spend his spring term in Europe. Here he lived in the American embassies and conversed with the citizens of Turkey, Russia, the Balkans, Palestine, Germany and France. From each capital he visited, Jack wrote his father an extensive report regarding the events taking place, along with information about the people and any undercurrents of which he became informed.
A “new” Jack returned to Harvard in the fall. Following two years achieving scholastic mediocrity, his name now appeared on the Dean’s List. Choosing to focus on International Government, he chose for his topic Appeasement at Munich (the Inevitable Result of the Slowness of Conversion of the British Democracy from a Disarmament to a Rearmament Policy. He felt the Munich Agreement of 1938 was a case of complacency involving not just a failure to judge the dynamism of Germany’s movement and the mis-judgment of the relative industrial outputs of German and England; but also involved a calm acceptance the democratic was is the best way.
In his thesis, Kennedy wrote: “They [the democracies] forgot to consider the advantage that geographic position gave England in getting control throughout the world while the countries of the world were still small warring states. They have forgotten all this and have been content to sit back in complacent satisfaction and trust that the virtues of their system of government will finally triumph over the menace of barbarianism.” This thesis was later published under the title Why England Slept and became an overnight best seller.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy had entered Harvard as an athlete of unimpressive proportions. During his crimson years, he matured into a political theorist able to see war in the making. He was admitted to the fellowship of educated men on June 4, 1940.