Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy called his address to students on the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960 the longest short speech he ever gave, clocking in at about 3 minutes. His aides thought so little of the impromptu 2 a.m. chat that they grabbed a bite to eat while the candidate talked. View a larger version of the photo. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

 This week in history (56 years ago)

One of the signature achievements of President John F. Kennedy was creating the Peace Corps, the creation of which dates back to an unexpected moment and impromptu speech 56 years ago this week.

After a day of campaigning for the presidency, then-Senator Kennedy arrived at the University of Michigan on Oct. 14, 1960, at 2 a.m., to get some sleep, not to propose the establishment of an international volunteer organization. Members of the press had retired for the night, believing that nothing interesting would happen.

But 10,000 students at the university were waiting to hear the candidate speak. Kennedy began by saying, “I want to express my thanks to you, as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.” The future president then challenged the students: How many of them would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world? “This university is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle,” he said. “There is certainly a greater purpose. … I come here tonight asking your support for this country.”

Following up on the idea he launched on the steps of the Union, Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Since then, more than 220,000 Americans — including more than 2,300 U-M graduates — have responded to the challenge. A plaque outside the Union entrance commemorates the occasion.

— From Peacecorps.gov, and reports from The Ann Arbor News and The Orange County Register

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