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Former Belle Vernon educator leads CMU adult education course on JFK

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, 5:00 p.m.
Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell

When Stephen V. Russell retired in 2012 as the Belle Vernon Area School District superintendent after 42 years as a teacher and administrator, he did not want to leave behind his life as an educator.

“After all those years teaching and being an administrator, I knew something was missing,” said Russell, 66, of Monongahela, a historian and well-known collector and exhibitor of President John F. Kennedy memorabilia.

Russell is doing what he loves, teaching an adult education course at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on a topic near and dear to his heart — President John F. Kennedy. Russell was known for his displays of Kennedy memorabilia — including campaign buttons and historic photos — while serving as principal of Belle Vernon Area's Bellmar junior high school and middle school. A self-described “political junkie,” Russell wrote candidate John Kennedy a letter of support in October 1960 and got a reply in the midst of a tough campaign against Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The course is attended by about 20 people who were adults when Kennedy occupied the White House from January 1961 to Nov. 22, 1963. The six-session course Russell teaches for the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute focuses on the continued legacy of the slain president on the nation and the world. Russell takes a look at Kennedy's impact in light of the upcoming centennial of his May 2017 birth.

“I am attempting to give my students the ‘authentic' President Kennedy,” said Russell, a 1967 graduate of Belle Vernon Area High School and school superintendent from 2008-12.

Russell hopes that his class will ignite a spirit in people to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth in May 1917. Russell said he would like to see displays in libraries and schools and speeches to social organizations about Kennedy's call for civic responsibility.

“I am hoping that one of our universities will hold a symposium on the presidency of John Kennedy. All of my students come into the class with a deep appreciation of President Kennedy,” said Russell, who spent 33 years as an assistant Belle Vernon Area High School principal and principal of the Bellmar schools.

It is not unusual for the nation to commemorate the centennial of the birth of other presidents. Congress appropriated funding for the centennial birthday celebrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1990; Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1982; and for Harry S. Truman in 1984, Russell said.

Certain presidents are memorable, Russell said, and Kennedy is certainly one of those. Fifty-two years after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, people are intrigued by and drawn to the promise Kennedy could offer America, Russell said.

“He remains in the memory and people want to know about him. The ones who know how to use oratory at the highest skilled level, are the ones that will be recalled,” said Russell, noting that Kennedy's rhetoric was “superbly done.”

Kennedy stirs interest in people because of his life — a beautiful wife, two small children, his promotion of arts and culture and his love of sports, Russell said.

Because Kennedy was assassinated before he could finish his first term, “what might have been, we'll never know,” Russell said.

Part of what never will be known about Kennedy is whether he would have kept U.S. troops in South Vietnam to fight the North Vietnamese communists. Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, escalated the war far more than Kennedy did. The Vietnam War became so unpopular that Johnson opted not to seek a second term in 1968.

“I don't have any hard evidence that John Kennedy would have pulled out after the '64 election,” Russell said.

Kennedy did not want to appear weak by allowing South Vietnam to fall to the communists, so the notion of the U.S. pulling out of Vietnam got entangled in politics at home, Russell said.

After Kennedy was killed, Russell said Americans lost faith in the government because of the political assassinations of Kennedy, his brother Robert, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King; the dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War; and the scandal surrounding the Watergate affair that led to President Nixon's resignation.

“What he called Americans to do, (was) to think about larger issues rather than petty, low-level issues. He gave people a reason to believe what America was and what it could be. He did it through his presence,” Russell said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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