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NEWS | Sept. 12, 2007

Charleston AFB privileged to host renowned lecturer

By Shauna Heathman 437th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Team Charleston had the rare opportunity to hear from a man who witnessed history first-hand as a trusted advisor to the Kennedy Administration.

Dr. Dan Fenn, educator and community leader, enlightened Charleston AFB Sept. 6 during an open lecture at the Charleston Club. His behind-the-scenes narratives as a staff assistant to President John Kennedy invited listeners to envision the White House environment during his employment there.

"I hope to open up a few questions in the listener's minds as to the role of the White House and the president's scene," said Doctor Fenn in regards to his lecture. "I want to get them thinking about the overall picture and be able to contrast today's white house with my time there."

After graduating from Harvard College in 1944, Doctor Fenn served two-and-a-half years for the Army Air Corps during World War II. Following his discharge, he was appointed assistant dean of freshman at Harvard. In 1961, he spent time as a special assistant to Senator Benjamin Smith of Massachusetts before becoming a staff assistant to President Kennedy.

Working as a White House staffer was not the first time Doctor Fenn was associated with President Kennedy. Doctor Fenn also worked with him during his second term as a congressman from Massachusetts in 1950, and then again for his re-election to Senate in 1958. It was shortly after working the Wisconsin primary presidential election in 1960 that Doctor Fenn was being called to the White House.

"I was still working at Harvard when I got the phone call," said Doctor Fenn. "The White House wanted to hire me to help Kennedy find people for presidential appointments ... that's when I became his permanent talent search."

With Doctor Fenn's employment, the first White House personnel office was created.

"I was one of 25 guys on the White House staff -- compared to the 2,000 staffers they have now," he said. "Everything was completely informal. There was no staff structure and the president was his own chief of staff ... that's the way he wanted it. There were no 'staff meetings'; no one had the nerve to call them staff meetings."

Doctor Fenn recalled President Kennedy as being very much the same around the office as he was in press conferences - very focused and optimistic. His personal description of him was unlike anything you could conceptualize from a movie or book.

"He would walk around the White House and pop his head into various offices just to see what was going on," said Doctor Fenn. "He was funny, pragmatic, prudent and thoughtful; he enjoyed reading and was extremely articulate. Although he was very accessible and very comfortable with his friends and associates, he always had a bit of distance between you and him. He had a sense of privacy, a degree of separation ... it enhanced him to be highly critical of his friends and family if he felt the situation demanded it. He was always a friend, but never a pal ... always very personable but just liked to leave himself that room."

Doctor Fenn recalled another memory of President Kennedy in relation to the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

"He felt so terrible about the disastrous event," he said. "The one thing I remember him saying about it was 'I didn't ask the questions I should have asked.'"

Going into more depth, Doctor Fenn said there was never an issue he wasn't asking a lot of questions about.

"That's what you pay the president for -- to ask questions," he said.

Taking this experience and applying it to our Airmen, Doctor Fenn shared some advice on staying knowledgeable and continuously growing.

"You have to move around a lot. Not just physically, but mentally," he said. "Take courses or programs, not just in your career field but in a lot of things; do something completely different. You have to ask questions to keep mentally active ... just keep asking questions."

It has been more than 50 years since Doctor Fenn first stepped foot into a classroom to teach and he continues to maintain a strong involvement in the community. Although a resident of Massachusetts, he has been lecturing in South Carolina for a state-run program called the Executive Institute since its establishment in 1991. He has taught more than 200 sessions for the South Carolina Executive Institute and at other institutions such as the Kennedy School of Government, Baruch College, American University and the Federal Executive Institute.

He served on several community and government boards during his career and has stayed very active following his retirement from the position as founding director of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in 1986. He continues to be active in town politics, has authored or edited numerous books and articles and mentors many local government leaders and civic volunteers.

"It was a great privilege to spend time with an accomplished academic historian and dedicated public servant," said Col. John Michel, 437th Airlift Wing vice commander. "Doctor Fenn's keen incites challenged us to think about the history of our nation, the functions of our government and the personalities of some of America's greatest leaders in very different ways."

Doctor Fenn's visit concluded with a tour of Charleston AFB. For his first time on base, Doctor Fenn was escorted on a windshield tour with Colonel Michel, received a cargo operation process briefing at the 437th Aerial Port Squadron and the opportunity to familiarize himself with a C-17 on the flightline.