DEAR PRESIDENT KENNEDY,
My wife, Annette, and I began our senior year at the University of Florida in the spring of 1963. We weren’t old enough to vote for you in 1960, but we thanked those who did.
We were marching and ducking stones in Gainesville in the summer of 1963 trying to break the color barrier in the local food establishments, eliminate the white-only restrooms and homogenize the bus seating. You were making a tough decision to press on with the Civil Rights Bill. We all knew that what we were doing was right.
We loved you. You were young and dynamic. You spoke of things we could understand, relate to, and support. We trusted you. You spoke the truth and seemed to do so with courage. You drew the best from us, the young idealists who thought that we also had a contribution to make. We wanted to imitate you.
In late November, Lee Harvey Oswald redefined despicable and we were scarred for life. Even now, I can replay that day with the greatest detail. That evening, after the cycles of pain, sorrow, anger and frustration, there came a clench-jawed determination to make your sacrifice count. That evening I was forged into a Kennedy-Man. (For those who don’t know, one spelling of that is LIBERAL, and damned proud of it!)
In December, Annette and I attended a Peace Corps recruitment program and, the following August trained in Hawaii for Philippines XIII. We served, as a married couple, in Luzon Through August of 1966.
In our minds, the formation and enactment of the Peace Corps Program was truly a stroke of genius. It tapped into the mostly under-used resource of fee energy, optimism, idealism and romanticism of America’s youth. Kids do the damnedest things, particularly that group of intelligent and dedicated kids that you turned on in the sixties!
We couldn’t have expressed it as well then, but now we know that our objective in joining the Peace Corps was to use our talents and energy to continue tearing down barriers. In the Peace Corps education programs, we worked with the host country children who grew to love us as we grew to love them. If the kids loved us, the parents knew we couldn’t be that bad. We were accepted, and we were able to improve the level of education in the Philippine school system as a result.
We succeeded because our freshness and naiveté was rightfully perceived as apolitical in the countries. And we were forgiven lots of mistakes because of our youth.
Unfortunately, there is no quantitative way to measure what impact we had on our Filipino children, teachers or community. That is one of the hardest things for a goal-oriented, romantic, idealist to accept. We do, however, have faith that we touched a lot of people, and that somewhere, on occasion, some Filipino adult smiles when he thinks of that crazy Cano he had for a 5th grad teacher.
It’s easier for us to measure what we got out of our Peace Corps experience (of course I mean in addition to the dysentery, denghi fever, and worms). It’s a heady experience for 22-year olds to find themselves responsible for developing and implementing a curriculum training program for 87 teachers, 12 school principals and 3 district supervisors. We returned to the U.S. with a measure of self-confidence well beyond what would be expected of someone our age. This was one very tangible and significant benefit from our Peace Corps service.
More importantly, having touched other people and tasted other cultures, we gained a much clearer understanding of our own society and its often frustrating dichotomies:
- Our country so rich in natural resources that it sustains conspicuous consumption. Our Filipino students refused to believe that hot water came out of our taps.
- Our great democracy still does not have full registration of eligible voters; and enormous numbers of those registered don’t bother to vote. Eleven Filipinos were killed at the polls just in our Pampangan town the day of Ferdinand Marcos’ first election.
- Our country is so generous that it can send 120,000 Peace Corps Volunteers overseas, but can’t send our street people anywhere. Yes, the street people in Manila had that same vacant look.
- Our melting pot of America that always seems to have those invisible diaphragms in it to keep the liquids from mixing no matter how much they boil. Our students through a nearby black PCV was an Italian, and thought she was gorgeous.
Jack, we voted for a Greek last week. We’re still Kennedy Liberals and we’re still trying to knock down the barriers. We thank you for teaching us how.
Arnold and Annette Finn