PHOENIX, Arizona, November 21. THE world will pause today to remember the life and legacy of President John F. Kennedy, who was fatally shot 50 years ago today in Dallas. Among the many things that still exist in our culture from Kennedy’s administration is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the highest civilian honor.
In 1963, less than a month after Kennedy’s assassination, the first recipients of the Medal of Freedom were honored at a ceremony at the White House. Among those receiving the Medal was Yale coach Bob Kiphuth. The International Swimming Hall of Fame details that day, and why Kennedy might have been keen on giving Kiphuth the medal.
By Bruce Wigo
Earlier this week, you may have seen news clips of Barak Obama conferring the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton, among others. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy through an Executive Order he signed in July of 1963. It was intended to be America’s highest Civilian Award, with recipients to be personally selected by the President, recognizing individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Among the recipients JFK selected to be honored at White House ceremonies on December 6, 1963, were author E.B. White, cellist Pau Casalls, photographer Edward Steichen, singer Marian Anderson and Yale’s legendary swimming coach, Robert Kiphuth.
Kennedy had been a swimmer at Harvard when Kiphuth was coaching Yale. Swimming helped JFK survive WWII and become the war hero that helped launch his political career. He also swam in the White House pool almost every day to relieve his chronic bad back.
One can only imagine the conversation and the opportunity to promote swimming that might have resulted from JFK placing the Medal of Freedom around Kiphuth’s neck, had an assassin’s bullet not intervened.
In December of 1963, construction of the Swimming Hall of Fame was well under way. Both Kiphuth and JFK’s coach at Harvard, Bob Muir, were among our organization’s founding fathers. Could they have cajoled the President into attending our opening ceremonies in 1965? Might Buck Dawson, Kiphuth, Muir, Counsilman and Haines have convinced him to become Chairman of our Board after completing his second term? We’ll never know.
One thing we do know is that Kiphuth remains the only recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the 50 years of its existence to be recognized for his contributions to swimming.