John F. Kennedy’s Childhood and Education

John F. Kennedy, or Jack as his family called him, was born on May 29, 1917. He had an older brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. and seven younger siblings. He spent the first decade of his life in Brookline, Massachusetts. JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Sr. didn’t play an active role in young Jack’s life since he was often away on business. His mother, Rose Kennedy, did have help with the children though. She needed it since Jack was often ill. The family joked that if a mosquito bit Jack, it would be sorry because it would catch whatever illness he had at the time.

Eventually the Kennedys moved to Bronxville, New York. Thanks to his father’s successful business ventures, the family could afford several different homes. They spent summers in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Easter and Christmas holidays took place at their home in Palm Beach, Florida.

jfk youth

Kennedy family at Hyannis Port Sept. 4, 1931. JFK at left in white shirt, Joe Jr. far right

Jack and his older brother were extremely competitive. Joe Sr. encouraged this quality in his sons. He often said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Unfortunately for Jack, his brother was both two years older and stronger, so if they fought Jack got beat up. Jack couldn’t best Joe as a student, either. Joe had ambition. Since childhood Joe said that he wanted to become the first Catholic President of the United States. While Joe worked hard in all his subjects, Jack tended to pay attention only to the ones that interested him, such as English.

When he enrolled at Choate boarding school in ninth grade, Jack found other ways of distinguishing himself from Joe. While Joe was the better student and an accomplished athlete, Jack became the class clown. He formed a group at Choate called the Muckers, which was responsible for many school pranks. Most memorably, they exploded a toilet seat with a firecracker. Jack was nearly expelled for that incident. Instead, poor health interfered with his studies. He was diagnosed with colitis. It made him tired and he also lost his appetite. He got well enough to graduate in the middle of his class. Despite his mediocre performance as a student, his classmates voted him most likely to succeed.

Jack’s colitis interfered again when he entered Princeton and had to quit after six weeks. In 1936, he enrolled at Harvard. While there, he produced a campus newspaper called the “Freshman Smoker” and got a spot on the varsity swim team. He wanted to play football, too, but he ruptured a disk in his spine. From then on JFK always lived with back pain.

In 1938, Joe Sr. served as President Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain. Both Jack and Joe Jr. went to Great Britain to work with their father. To prepare for his senior thesis, Jack traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. He returned to London on September 1, 1939—the same day that World War II began. Jack’s thesis pointed out that Great Britain was unprepared for war because it had neglected its military. Published as Why England Slept, his work became a bestseller. He used the money he made from the book to buy a Buick convertible, but he also gave the royalties he made from Great Britain to charity.


Lt. John F. Kennedy, 1942

After graduation, Jack joined his brother in the U.S. Navy. Joe was a flyer and Jack was a Lieutenant assigned to the South Pacific. Only Jack came home. Joe Jr. died when his plane blew up during a mission in Europe.

Joe’s death changed everything for JFK. With his oldest son gone, Jack’s father encouraged him to abandon his interests in writing and teaching to run for Congress. JFK won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1946. His political career had begun.

Neil Armstrong: Future Astronaut

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong climbed down from the ladder of the lunar module the Eagle and became the first man ever to walk on the moon. It took Armstrong a long time to become an astronaut. Even as a young kid growing up in small towns in Ohio, Armstrong had a willingness to try new things as well as a strong work ethic. Both came in handy when he applied to NASA.

Though his passion for space travel came later, as a child Armstrong was fascinated with airplanes. At six years old, he took his first plane flight with his father in a passenger plane named the Tin Goose. Neil and his father, Stephen Armstrong, planned to just watch the planes at the Warren Ohio airport on a Sunday morning, but the pilot of the Tin Goose offered them a ride. The Tin Goose’s body was made of aluminum and carried up to twelve passengers in wicker chairs. Neil’s father remembered that “he was scared to death and Neil enjoyed it.” After his first passenger flight, Neil spent a lot of time building model airplanes. When he completed them, he hung them with string from the ceiling of his bedroom.

As he grew, Armstrong wanted to fly planes himself, but lessons cost money. Mostly, he wanted to fly so he could understand how planes were built. Armstrong said, “While I was still in elementary school my intention was to be—or hope—was to be an aircraft designer. I later went into piloting because I thought a good designer ought to know the operational aspects of an airplane.” When he didn’t have to be at school, Armstrong worked at a pharmacy stocking shelves and sweeping floors to pay for flying lessons. Even though Armstrong had to work twenty-three hours just for one flying lesson, he still received his pilot’s license at age sixteen. He hadn’t learned to drive a car, but he could fly a small plane.

After high school, Armstrong planned to go to college to study aeronautic engineering—the science of how planes were built and what made them to fly. He received a scholarship from the U.S. Navy, which allowed him to attend college in exchange for serving three years in the navy. The idea of serving in the navy didn’t bother him because he knew he would be able to fly some of the newest and fastest jets. Armstrong started taking classes at Purdue University, but soon had to learn how to pilot fighter jets when the U.S. entered the Korean War. Though flying combat missions was dangerous, Armstrong came back safely. He finished his courses at Purdue, and found work at Edwards Air Force Base.

Pilot Neil Armstrong returns from a research mission, 1960

Pilot Neil Armstrong returns from a research mission, 1960

At the base, Armstrong test piloted new planes. One of the planes, named the X-15, could go almost 4,000 miles an hour at an altitude of 207,500 feet. The plane served as an early test for space flight. In 1962, Armstrong left the test pilot program. He decided to apply to NASA’s astronaut program, which might one day give him an opportunity to fly in outer space. He was accepted and completed one other space flight before joining the other astronauts on the space shuttle Apollo 11. Part of the shuttle, the lunar module, which the astronauts named the Eagle, landed on the moon.