On Nov. 26, 1963, Willis Tate addressed the SMU community about the tragedy that struck the nation only a few days prior. Four days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, SMU President Tate gave a speech aimed to empower the university to move forward despite the difficult circumstances.
Marshall Terry, an SMU English professor and Willis Tate’s assistant from 1957 to 1965, wrote a speech for Tate that was a “20 gun salute” and reminisced on JFK’s life. However, as the SMU community gathered in McFarlin Auditorium that night, the speech Terry wrote wasn’t the one Tate gave. Tate, who had completely disregarded Terry’s speech, decided to write his own.
Terry, who retired from SMU in 2007 as the E.A. Lilly Distinguished Professor of English, said that at the time he was shocked by Tate’s rewriting of the speech, but now in hindsight realizes it was the appropriate move.
“I had a written a speech for Willis Tate and we expected a 20 gun salute, an affirmation of everything [that] I had a written about Kennedy. He didn’t use a word of mine or anybody else’s and said we had to be positive about this and that he was going to set up a department of urban studies and that was something new in those days,” Terry said.
According to Terry, the department of Urban Studies set up by Tate was successful and served the university for 25 years. In addition to the announcement of the department of urban studies, Tate stated three areas of commitment the university would focus on in the aftermath of the assassination. Terry, who described the mood on campus as chaotic, now agrees with Tate’s decision to convey an uplifting message in his speech.
In his first paragraph, Tate began his address recognizing the impact the assassination had on the nation and also the city of Dallas and SMU community as a whole. As Tate continued to the second paragraph, he began to change the mood of the speech from one of mourning to one of empowerment that he successfully carried throughout the rest of his speech.
“Southern Methodist University, like all mankind, has been grieved and shocked over the assassination of our young president. As a corporate citizen of the Dallas community, the university has shared the shame and guilt that has been focused on the heart of Dallas, intensifying our contrite sadness. Out of our morning have come new insights and new motivations. We see more clearly the things we have known, but until this shocking experience, have not known well enough.
All great social philosophy is born in crisis. As we rise from our knees to join all Dallas citizens, both individual and corporate, in our task ahead, what do we say? What do we do? How do we pray?
Although mindful of our mistakes, shortcomings, inadequacies, this, now, is no time for continued vindictiveness. It is not time for scapegoating. It is no time for self-abasement and breast-beating. It is a time for reevaluation, for moral and spiritual vitality, and for the rational wisdom that tells us of those things that are valid, true, eternal, vital, important and beautiful.”
In Tate’s opinion, the reevaluation he believed it was time for consisted of calling together a series of university commissions, “to formulate and articulate our first principles in several fields,” Tate said.
In his speech he referenced the first three principles commission called “Our Commitment to Law and Its Moral Foundations,” “Commitment to Community Wholeness That Values Diversity” and “Commitment to a Church that is both Independent of its Culture and Concerned to Serve it.”
As Terry remembers the tragic time for this nation, this city, and this university, he recalls the involvement of the entire community during this hardship.
“The students were very involved, I was too,” Terry said. “It was just very sad and the address was as positive as it could be.”