Averting a National Fitness Crisis: A Story of Pluck on the Front Lines

Topeka Capital-Journal
Jan. 9, 1991

There is more bad news for would be war correspondents. It wasn’t enough that the prospective war zone bans booze and wanton women, so now the Pentagon says journalists must pass a physical fitness test before they will be accredited to cover the troops in Operation Desert Shield.

Several men and women already have been tested, and only a few men have failed. This is not surprising, since men are less inclined to take this sort of thing seriously. Those found wanting probably went to the test directly from a wholesome lunch of spicy chili, barbecued ribs, cheesecake and a few beers.

Some men aren’t meant to pass physical fitness tests, and this simple fact calls to mind the greatest fitness crisis in the country’s history. It occurred in February 1963, and I am proud to say I played a major role in resolving it.

The White House was occupied at the time by John F. Kennedy, and it probably was his Irish humor and his bent for playing a dirty trick on his portly press secretary, Pierre Salinger, that started the whole thing. Robert F Kennedy, the attorney general, got into it, and in the end it turned out to be funny to everybody but Salinger.

The story goes that President Kennedy somehow learned that Teddy Roosevelt, when he was president, had sent a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps saying every Marine should be able to walk 50 miles amd that White House personnel probably should be able to do it, too. You can smell a plot being hatched here.

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JFK Tops for Intentional White House Humor

Topeka Capital Journal
Aug. 12, 1991

In this country we like to say that anybody can grow up to be president, but that’s like saying anybody can win the lottery. The odds are against anyone who has the White House in mind. That goes even for a vice president, particularly if his name is Dan Quayle.

All most of us can do about the presidency is hope we vote for the winner, and then hope he does a decent job. We also can hope he has a sense of humor, because when you consider the shape the country is in, it is clear the head man needs to be able to laugh and make others laugh with him.

jfkIf you were to rate presidents by their sense of humor, you would have to admit that, despite all his weaknesses, John Kennedy was the best ever. Throughout his career, his wit stands out like no president before or since.

Asked how he became a war hero, he said, “It was easy. They sank my boat.” During his presidential campaign he said his wealthy father would finance a victory, “but he flatly refuses to pay for a landslide.” Continue reading

On Assignment from the President

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 1, 1992

I ended the month of May with a blooper, and probably I’m starting June with another one, but some of us never learn. Last week I wrote that State Senator Frank Gaines of Augusta, who has announced his retirement, was a good man. It turns out he was a better man than I gave him credit for being. I should have known .

He was in the Legislature 24 years, and I noted that if he signed up for the plush pension plan legislators voted for themselves, he would qualify for about $25,000 per year. I added there was no reason to believe he hadn’t signed.

Since then I have been informed by a good friend of his, who would know, that Gaines didn’t take advantage of the souped-up pension. He deserves this apology and the respect of all of us.

I also have sentenced myself to do severe penance for this mistake, but not before I start June on the wrong foot by giving in to the irresistible urge to drop big names. It comes over me occasionally, and I am a pushover.

Maybe this one was caused by the recent new evidence from the two doctors that president John F. Kennedy was killed by two shots, fired by one man. Maybe it started me thinking about him and about my days as a dedicated public servant in Washington.

The story goes back 30 years, to the days when all public servants were dedicated and all Kansas State football fans were long-suffering. The story doesn’t have anything to do with K-State, but it does have a little to do with football. Continue reading

Chicken Fat: A Hit in Schools, Though JFK Hated the Title

Topeka Capital-Journal – August 25, 2000

There’s a connection between Bud Wilkinson and a song called “Chicken Fat,” but I never expected to be reminded of it this week when I was in Oklahoma being interviewed for a TV biography of the late Sooner football coach. But it was there, in the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, on the same morning I faced the camera.

Some background is in order. In 1961, soon after President John F. Kennedy took office, he asked one of his aides, Ted Reardon, to figure out what he should do with the fitness program inherited from the Eisenhower administration.

Eisenhower was concerned because American children lagged far behind Europeans in strength and fitness tests, so he created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.

To lead it, he named an orator, Shane McCarthy, who went around the country extolling the merits of a strong mind in a strong body, and attending a lot of meetings and seminars on what should be done to get American youngsters leaner and tougher.

Reardon studied the problem, then wrote a memo to the president, saying what the program needed first was a sports personality who presented an image of both physical fitness and personal integrity.

Reardon would tell me later that as he dictated the memo, the next sentence just rolled off his tongue without him having to even think about it. “What the program needs,” he said, “is someone like Bud Wilkinson.” Continue reading

Now the Wilkinson Task is to Develop All-America’s Fitness

Oklahoma Today, Fall 1961

At Oklahoma, Charles B. (Bud) Wilkinson has produced many great athletes. Now, he has taken on an added task that is far more awesome in both responsibility and opportunity. He has been assigned by the President to produce a nation of physically-fit Americans.

It may surprise some to learn the two jobs have little if any, relation to each other. The answer to the physical fitness problem is not more football players. The pressing need is a program that will raise the millions of physically-deficient Americans up to minimum acceptable physical standards.

It is a tribute to Wilkinson, and to the coaching profession, that he was chosen March 23 a Special Consultant to the President on Youth Fitness. His appointment came after several conferences with President Kennedy. Although he is admittedly no expert in the field of physical education, Wilkinson outlined what he thought had to be done. The President told him to get it done. Continue reading