JFK dared us to dream big. To send a man to the moon and return him to earth. NASA reflected the very best of the American spirit.
So did the Peace Corps.
He was just beginning the fight to desegregate schools and restaurants when he was murdered in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. To Americans of a certain age, the Kennedy assassination was a life-changing event.
Millions remember where they were and what they were doing, and many of them were glued to television coverage for the next four days.
We didn't know it at the time, but JFK's murder began to change how large numbers of us would consume news in the years to come. That weekend, readers waited for hours outside the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's office to get the latest edition of the newspaper.
Once they got it in their hands, they got back in line and waited again for another few hours for a later edition. When I worked at the Dallas Times Herald in the '80s, I listened as reporters spoke of walking over to watch the motorcade and returning to find a panicked city editor screaming for them to get to Parkland Hospital, to Texas School Book Depository, to here, there and everywhere.
Blackie Sherrod, the Times Herald's great sports columnist, took over operation of the news desk for a time, and late Sunday after Lee Harvey Oswald had been murdered by Jack Ruby, he heard a scream from the photo department.
Photographer Bob Jackson had just gone through his shots from the police station and saw that he'd captured Oswald's shooting at the exact instance it happened. He would later win a Pulitzer Prize for that shot.
Sherrod declared it "the greatest news photo ever taken" and intended to make it the entire front page of the Times Herald on Monday.
His bosses resisted.
"Dallas has already had so much bad publicity," one said.
That argument ended late that evening when the early edition of the competing Dallas Morning News arrived. Its front page was a full-blown photo of Ruby and Oswald. Only it had been taken an instant before the shot was fired. At that point, Sherrod ordered that Jackson's historic photo cover the entire front page.
Sherrod was one of dozens of Dallas cops and newspaper people who knew Ruby, who lobbied for coverage of his strip club and handed out free passes. To people like Blackie Sherrod, there's zero chance Jack Ruby was involved in a conspiracy.
"He would have bragged about it to everyone he knew," Blackie told a group of us late one night.
Kennedy's youth and vibrance extended to sports. He was born a couple of miles from Fenway Park in Brookline, Mass., and grew up rooting for the Red Sox. When he moved to Washington, he followed the Senators closely.
He threw out the first pitch at Washington's home openers all three years he was president. He also attended the 1962 All-Star Game at D.C. Stadium, which was later named for his brother Robert F. Kennedy.
JFK was a golfer and a swimmer and an avid touch football player, and while his health generally was poor, sports helped polish the image that his administration was America's answer to Camelot.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of his death, we remember JFK's remarkable life, both that as a war hero and as a leader who gave sweeping, grand speeches and challenged Americans to give back to their communities and their planet.
He was never everything we thought he was. Lord knows, he wasn't perfect. But he did inspire a country in a way no president ever had.
Other presidents had challenged us in time of war or natural disaster. But Kennedy challenged us to do more than perhaps we even thought possible.
He helped change the country, or at least begin the real change that would follow under his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson. On this day of reflection, we remained inspired.