Harvard has just released what its archivists believe is the earliest voice recording of the future president, who, as it turns out, sounded a lot like a politician even as a young man. The restored recording is part of a new exhibit at the Harvard University Archives that explores Kennedy’s Harvard ties. It captures Kennedy delivering a 1937 speech about Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black for the College public speaking course “English F.”
“As far as we know, this is the earliest known recording of his voice in a research collection,” said archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, who worked with the recording and helped curate the new exhibit “JFK’s Harvard/Harvard’s JFK.” She said that the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, in Boston, holds no recording earlier than a 1940 radio interview, as far as her staff is aware.
Harvard officials have been aware of the recording since it arrived several years ago as part of a collection of material related to Harvard professor Frederick Clifton Packard Jr. Packard taught the course in Harvard’s Holden Chapel and had been recording his students since the 1920s. (He also established the Harvard Vocarium, a project that produced recordings of famous poets including T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound.)
The restored Kennedy recording is part of an ongoing effort to preserve the thousands of pieces of audio material housed at the University Archives, among them the hundreds of discs from Packard’s class. Helping to lead that effort is David Ackerman, the head of media preservation services at the Harvard Library, and likely the first person to hear the young Kennedy’s voice in 80 years.
“I was really struck by how recognizable his voice was, even through the noise,” said Ackerman, who transferred the recording from its original aluminum disc to an MP3 audio file before passing it to an engineer who cleaned up the clicks, pops, and crackles.
Though Kennedy is among several speakers on the two-sided disc, he is one of only two who discussed Black. His classmates preferred more mundane subjects, such as book collecting, sourdough, and how to find a wife.