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UN Secretary-General: JFK left indelible imprint on me

USA Today (US)

22 November 2013

By Ban Ki-moon

Meeting the president as a youth led to my decision to choose a life of public service.

One of my great personal regrets is not having better preserved the autograph I received from President Kennedy when I had the overwhelming good fortune to meet him as a nameless teenager from a dusty village in Korea.

I was in the United States as part of an eye-opening tour organized by the Red Cross for a group of young people from around the world. It was more than a visit to a foreign country -- it was a pilgrimage to the land of possibility, a shining democracy that had helped to save my nation in its darkest hour.

President Kennedy's signature was quickly dispersed among the many fingerprints of my friends who grabbed at the glossy White House Bulletin and passed it around with such eagerness that by the time it returned to me no trace of his writing remained. But nothing could remove the imprint the American president made on my life. Meeting him was a turning point. His words that day on the South Lawn sparked my decision to become a diplomat and dedicate myself to public service.

As he looked out at our diverse group representing countries that were then on different sides of the Iron Curtain, President Kennedy reminded us that we could be friends even if our governments were not. And he said the words I chose to live by: "There are no national boundaries; there is only a question of whether we can extend a helping hand."

As I grew older and progressed through my career in national diplomatic service, that idea came into sharper focus, and I resolved to contribute to the global public good. As secretary-general of the United Nations, I try my best to serve the peoples of the world in whose name the organization's charter was adopted.

President Kennedy had great faith in the United Nations. His last speech to the General Assembly just weeks before his death reads like a primer for addressing the problems that still plague us today. He stressed the indivisibility of human rights. He opposed wasteful military spending. He called for racial and religious tolerance. He praised United Nations peacekeeping. And he insisted that we embrace peace not only on paper, but in our hearts. These are all values I defend along with a corps of dedicated United Nations staff members around the world.

In my own encounters with the world's young people, I try to deliver the message that JFK gave to me: Be a global citizen and love your country by serving the world.

Ban  Ki-moon is the Secretary-General of the United Nations