San Diego State University commemorates President John F. Kennedy's visit 50 years ago

Kennedy's visit changed s

SAN DIEGO - President John F. Kennedy made an extraordinary trip to San Diego 50 years ago. He visited then-San Diego State College to receive an honorary doctorate, which was the first ever presented by a California state college.

But Kennedy did more than bring excitement that day. His visit led to something that changed San Diego State forever.

When Kennedy stepped off Air Force One in San Diego on June 6, 1963, San Diego State student Patrick Stalnaker was there.

"It was a magic moment to see him get off," Stalnaker said.

The president's motorcade made its way from the airport down El Cajon Boulevard toward the Aztec Bowl at San Diego State.

Stalnaker still has the official admission card to the event.

"I think it was a big moment for San Diego State," he said. "It really put us on the map."

The atmosphere in the bowl was electric.

Today, all that is left of the bowl are the concrete bleachers now considered too unsafe to sit on. Cracks and crumbling can be seen throughout, but back when Kennedy was there it was packed with 30,000 people.

"Amazing… I didn't think it would happen," recalled senior class president Bob Weir, who wrote the letter that is credited with helping persuade Kennedy to come. "Just absolutely one of the highlights of my life."

Historical footage shows that after receiving his honorary doctorate, Kennedy talked about the importance of education.

"No country can possibly move ahead, no free society can possibly be sustained unless it has an educated citizenry," he said.

His words are now immortalized on a plaque that was unveiled during the school's commemoration ceremony Tuesday. It replaces the one stolen five years ago. 

The sentiment is more urgent than ever. In 1963, California was number one in the nation in education. Now, as anthropology department chairman and SDSU history expert Seth Mallios points out, California is 49th in terms of money invested in schools.

"I think this moment, this anniversary tells us we need to change things," he said.

The president certainly changed things for the school. His honorary doctorate paved the way for the school to start giving actual doctorates three years later, helping it eventually go from being a college to being a university.

"Kennedy gave a call to action then and is giving us a call to action now," said Mallios.

Kennedy also toured the Marine Corps Recruit Depot that day. It was a milestone visit for all of San Diego. Mallios says in just 24 hours, a quarter of a million people came out to see JFK.

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