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Local

Egyptian Theatre to unveil Kennedy's 1959 speech in DeKalb

John F. Kennedy signs the name tag of Bill Farley (right), who was a 22-year-old senior at Northern Illinois University when Kennedy visited DeKalb on Oct. 29, 1959.
John F. Kennedy signs the name tag of Bill Farley (right), who was a 22-year-old senior at Northern Illinois University when Kennedy visited DeKalb on Oct. 29, 1959.

DeKALB – Before he became president, John F. Kennedy gave a historic speech at DeKalb’s Egyptian Theatre in 1959.

Now, residents can relive that moment in local history, as the theater will play a recording of the 18-minute speech for the first time at a public event Tuesday night.

A slideshow of photos from the era will accompany the speech, which will be followed by a presentation on Kennedy’s life by historian and Marengo resident Jim Gibbons. The DeKalb Public Library also will have newspapers and magazines from 1959 on display in the lobby.  

Alex Nerad, executive director of the Egyptian Theatre, said he is very excited to celebrate the noteworthy event.

“It’s really fascinating and amazing to have that speech on our stage and listen to it again,” Nerad said. “It almost gives you goose bumps that he was here. It’s a very cool part of DeKalb’s history.”  

Then-Sen. Kennedy gave the speech Oct. 25, 1959, to about 1,300 people just a few months before he announced his candidacy for president in January 1960. Kennedy’s visit to DeKalb was a stop on a three-day tour of Illinois. 

The Egyptian Theatre, which at the time was privately owned, did not have any memorabilia or archives of the event.

But in mid-1980s, area resident Tom Zeeh received a cassette recording of the speech from the late Dorothy O’Brien, the then-Democratic chairwoman for the northern district of Illinois. In 2014, Zeeh donated the recording to the theater, which worked with Northern Illinois University’s Media Services to digitize and clean up the audio. 

Nerad wanted to play the recording on the 57th anniversary of the event, and said it is very timely with the general election about two weeks away.  

“With the current political climate, it’s interesting to look back on politics of that era and see what their priorities were,” he said. “It’s amazing to me that any politician today could give the same speech and it would be applicable.”

In the speech, Kennedy talks about the Cold War and reflects on what he thinks the U.S. will look like in the year 2000. He also said that Americans have “gone physically, mentally, morally and spiritually soft.”

“He says that we’re losing our will to fight, and that we take for granted our security, liberty and future – and JFK was right about the future. We are soft now,” Gibbons said. “I want people to listen to every word of the speech because it pertains to us today.”

Gibbons said it was very courageous for Kennedy to visit DeKalb because it was a Republican stronghold, but from the recording, it seemed as though Kennedy received a warm welcome from the crowd.

“Kennedy knew he needed Republican support. Politics were always involved, but there was more harmony between parties back then,” he said.

After the speech, Gibbons will discuss what is heard in the recording, as well as details of Kennedy’s life. Gibbons said he is extremely excited about the evening.

“This is one of the finest works of art that the theater will be presenting,” he said. “I’ve never been so honored to walk on the same stage as him. I could feel his presence there. I love John F. Kennedy, and we need his passion today.”

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If you go

What: “The Life of John F. Kennedy”

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25 

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St., DeKalb

Tickets: $20 for adults and $12 for seniors, veterans and students. 

Information: www.egyptiantheatre.org or 815-758-1215

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