JFK at Choate: A Member of the “Muckers’ Club”
Kennedy started Choate in 1931, during his ninth grade year, after having attended Riverdale Country School in New York City and Canterbury School in Connecticut. His older brother, Joe, Jr., was also at Choate for JFK’s freshman and sophomore years, and JFK tried to get out from behind Joe’s shadow, in part by carrying out pranks. While at Choate, JFK exploded a toilet seat with a firecracker. After this incident, headmaster George St. John held aloft the damaged toilet seat in chapel and referred to the perpetrators of this antic as “muckers.” Kennedy, ever a joker, founded the “Muckers’ Club,” a social group that included his friends and partners-in-crime.
In addition to being a prankster, JFK played football, basketball, and baseball at Choate, and he was the business manager of his senior yearbook. In his senior year, he was also voted “most likely to succeed.” According to his yearbook, he was 5’11” and weighed 155 pounds upon graduation, and his nicknames were recorded as “Jack” and “Ken.” Despite his achievements and popularity, during his years at Choate, he also suffered from continual heath problems, and he was hospitalized at Yale and at other institutions for colitis and other problems.
Choate’s Influence on JFK
There is no doubt that Choate left a significant impression on Kennedy, and the release of recent archival documents shows that this impression may have been greater than previously understood. Recent reports by CBS news and other news outlets that cite a book by television host Chris Matthews suggest that Kennedy’s famous speech that includes the line “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” may have been in part a reflection of a Choate headmaster’s words. Headmaster George St. John, who gave sermons that JFK attended, included similar words in his speeches.
A few years ago, an archivist at Choate named Judy Donald found one of St. John’s notebooks in which he wrote about a quote from a Harvard dean who said, “The youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask, not ‘What can she do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for her?’” St. John was often heard to say, it’s "not what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate," and Kennedy may have used this phrasing, adapted from his headmaster, in his famous inaugural address, delivered in January of 1961. Some historians are critical of the idea that Kennedy could have lifted the quote from his former headmaster.
In addition to this recently unearthed notebook kept by headmaster George St. John, Choate holds voluminous records related to JFK’s years at the school. The Choate Archives include about 500 letters, including correspondence between the Kennedy family and the school, and books and photos of JFK’s years at the school.
JFK’s Academic Record and Harvard Application
Kennedy’s academic record at Choate was unimpressive and placed him in the third quarter of his class. As a recent article in the Huffingon Post reports, Kennedy’s application to Harvard and his transcript from Choate were less-than-spectacular. His transcript, released by the Kennedy Library, shows that JFK struggled in certain classes. He earned a mark of 62 in Physics, though Kennedy earned a respectable 85 in history. On his application to Harvard, Kennedy noted that his interests lay in Economics and history and that he “would like to go to the same college as my father.” Jack Kennedy, JFK’s father, wrote that “Jack has a very brilliant mind for the things in which he is interested, but is careless and lacks application in those in which he is not interested.”
Perhaps even JFK would not have met Harvard’s stringent admissions criteria today, but there is no doubt that although he wasn’t always a serious student at Choate, the school played an important part in his formation. At Choate, he showed, even at age 17, some of the characteristics that would make him a charismatic and important president in later years—a sense of humor, a way with words, an interest in politics and history, a connection to others, and a spirit of perseverance in the face of his own suffering.