John F. Kennedy Middle School pays tribute to namesake

Bethpage Jr. High School 8th graders Carl Pagluica,

Bethpage Jr. High School 8th graders Carl Pagluica, left, and John Zinno unveil a plaque during the ceremony on January 20, 1964 when the school's name was changed to John F. Kennedy Junior High School. (Jan. 20, 1964) (Credit: Handout)

John F. Kennedy Middle School now has memorabilia sent from the late president's daughter, Caroline -- a copy of a page of the handwritten draft of Kennedy's inaugural address with that unforgettable line: "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

Principal Kevin Fullerton said Friday the page will become part of the Bethpage school's permanent collection, along with a printed booklet of the speech that Caroline Kennedy had signed and sent.

Throughout the day, students at one of the nation's first schools named for JFK after his death turned the 50th anniversary of his assassination into a celebration of his life and times with a "museum" that included a model Lunar Excursion Module, newspapers from Nov. 22, 1963, and photographs of Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

Displays focused on the 35th president's accomplishments in foreign policy, civil rights, science and space exploration.

The middle school -- built in 1950 and called the Broadway Avenue School -- was dedicated to the late president on Nov. 26, 1963, the same day as a school in Butte, Mont. The renaming was the idea of then-Superintendent Charles H. Bryan and the district's board of education.

Among the students who worked on the exhibits displayed in the gymnasium was John Patrick Houston Jr., 11, of Bethpage. Both John and his father celebrated their birthdays Friday.

"It shows you how important he is," he said. "He died 50 years ago and we still remember him today."

The exhibit he worked on showed symbols and sayings of the 1960s. John choose a quote from the late economist Milton Friedman that he believes exemplified how people could change the country: "Governments never learn; only people learn."

The model of the Lunar Excursion Module captured the attention of Anderson Zabala, 12, of Bethpage.

"It's the most coolest and interesting," he said.

Anderson said his grandmother learned of Kennedy's death while watching television in her native Colombia before she moved to Texas.

"She was very upset," he said. "He had done lots of great things."

Ken Speiser, 77, of Plainview, a former Grumman engineer who said he worked on the lunar module, came to the school with other members of the local historical society.

"It was terrible. No one could believe it," he said, recalling the assassination. "I remember -- with my wife -- crying with the television set the day it happened."

Several students said they learned of the impact of the president's death from older relatives or neighbors, as their parents are too young to recall it.

Michael Hanley, also 11 and from Plainview, selected the LEGO advertising slogan for the pop culture exhibit.

"He led our entire country when there were many bumps and bruises, and he always came up on top," Michael said.

Before dismissal, the school held a rededication ceremony, with performances by the student orchestra, chorus and band.

Fullerton said of his students: "I think they have really grown to understand how important it is that we bear the name."

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