On 50th Anniversary of Kennedy's Inauguration, JFK's Call to Service Still Resounds

VIDEO: LIFE.com reopens archives of President John F. Kennedys inaugural address.
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Fifty years ago on this day, a young, dapper American president rose to the podium and delivered an inaugural address that would resonate for decades to come.

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," said John F. Kennedy in a riveting call to service. "My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

For those who witnessed it, Kennedy's inauguration day was anything but smooth. A snowstorm wreaked havoc in Washington, nearly cancelling the inaugural parade.

The U.S. Army was put in charge of clearing the streets and former president Herbert Hoover missed the swearing-in ceremony because he couldn't fly into the city. When the ceremony did start, a lectern caught fire during the invocation, which some complained was too long, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson fumbled his words during his swearing-in.

Yet the mood surrounding the event was one that Americans hadn't felt in years.

"There was this tremendous sense of vigor and yes, hope and optimism. It was also a time when we were entering a huge economic boom," remembers ABC News contributor Cokie Roberts, a college freshman at the time who was unable to make it to the inauguration because of the snow.

"A lot of people who are the senior statesmen of today were the kids in that era who came because of Kennedy, and they came because they were asking what they could for their country," she said.

Kennedy's uplifting inaugural address, remembered by some historians as one of the best in the nation's history, challenged Americans to serve their country at a time when the Cold War simmered overseas and the civil rights struggle grew at home.

"The inaugural address was certainly incredibly well-received. And the whole gravity, the credence and the whole business of the torch has gone forth to a new generation, that was absolutely true," Roberts said. "The visual image of the turnover from Eisenhower to Kennedy, it was very striking -- a man who was a general in World War II versus this man who was the second youngest president, who was a kid on a PT boat."

Kennedy's election marked many firsts for the United States. At age 43, he was the youngest president to be elected. Teddy Roosevelt came to the White House at 42, but he replaced William McKinley, who was assasinated. Kennedy was also the first, and to this date, the only Catholic elected as commander-in-chief and he brought a sense of excitement among American Catholics that hasn't been seen since.

Those close to him also remember him as an amiable, funny president, a marked departure from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"President Kennedy, the first time he met you he asked your name and he never forgot it. The second time, he asked your wife's name and your children's names, and he was personable with the agents and very much a free spirit compared to President Eisenhower," said Gerald Blaine, a Secret Service agent in Eisenhower and Kennedy's security detail and co-author of the "The Kennedy Detail: JFK's Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence."

"It was such a contrast because he was so young and was totally different."

John F. Kennedy Inaugural, 50 Years Later

Kennedy also brought youth and intrigue to the White House. His fashionable and glamorous wife, Jackie Kennedy, and two young children, captured the fancy of Americans in a way that no other first family had done before.

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