Column: Thoughts from Dr. Joe: JFK inspired generation to be physically fit

When President John F. Kennedy, right, asked U.S. Marines to hike 50 miles in one day, his brother and Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, left, took on the challenge.

After reading Bob Frank’s column in the Valley Sun last week, “The Focused Student: The Power of Physical Education,” I want to share a story and elaborate on Bob’s important message.

On Feb. 9, 1963, Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy walked from Great Falls, Md. to Harpers Ferry, W.Va. He had no preparation, no training. And in spite of temperatures well below freezing, he wore Oxford loafers. The journey was the brainchild of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who had been impressed when he learned of a much earlier 50-mile military walking challenge made by President Teddy Roosevelt. The Kennedys were notoriously athletic, and JFK in particular was concerned about the decline in American “vigor.”

The White House had discovered a 1908 executive order from the first President Roosevelt, a fitness fanatic who had said that all Marines should be able to hike 50 miles in three days. President Kennedy agreed, and reissued the challenge to the Marines of his own time. Not to be outdone by his predecessor, JFK asked that his Marines complete the 50 miles in just one day. He joked that perhaps his staff should take on the challenge as well. For his brother Robert, it was no joke.

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Robert Kennedy, ever the spark plug in an active administration, decided to take the challenge himself. So, three days after the initial idea was set in motion, the attorney general set out with his staff on the most natural lengthy trail in the area, the C&O Canal Towpath, and headed north to Harpers Ferry.

After 25 miles, the group was ready to give up. But the press had caught wind of what Kennedy was doing, and a helicopter arrived, with photographers and journalists to document the hike.

The Kennedy March earned much media attention and sparked a nationwide obsession with fitness. People throughout the country took on the challenge, and for a brief moment, Americans got serious about physical fitness. However, the fad of the 50-mile walk was short-lived and matters of grave concern soon overtook the American people.

At the time, I was a sophomore in high school and during the winter, spring and summer of 1963, I did four 50-mile hikes. I wrote the president of my accomplishments; he sent me a letter of commendation and a sweatshirt that read “JFK 50-Miler.”

Bob Frank’s recent column suggests fitness is an essential component of education. Bob is not the only one to have such an opinion. Plato was an athlete, particularly skilled as a wrestler. His given name was Aristocles, after his grandfather, but the coach under whom he trained is said to have called him “Plato” from the Greek for broad, platon, on account of his broad-shouldered frame.

So good a wrestler was Plato that he reportedly competed at the Isthmian Games, ancient Greek Olympics, and continued wrestling into adulthood. Plato spoke strongly on behalf of the virtues of physical education. He felt that one should balance physical training with exercising the intellect. The goal he expressed is “to bring the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch.”

Plato took the idea of educational fitness one step further and said that youth are a composite of intellectual, spiritual, social and physical development. His “Republic” demonstrates his approach to learning.

Socrates was a Greek soldier and a decorated hero of the Peloponnesian War. In Plato’s “Symposium,” Socrates is lauded because of his supreme fitness and endurance.

German philosopher Kurt Khan was influenced by the works of Plato and was inspired to become a schoolmaster. He developed a similar philosophy that physicality is an essential component of learning. Khan is the founder of Outward Bound, a physical-adventure-based program for youth.

In 1963, I had no idea that the physicality I developed on the streets of the Bronx and employed on my 50-mile hikes would pay dividends soon after the fall of Camelot, the idyllic Kennedy administration of the early 1960s.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at