Step # 10: Ten Steps For The Next Peace Corps Director To Take To Save Money, Improve The Agency, and Make All PCVs & RPCVs Happy!

Shriver Redux

There is a story told that when Sarge Shriver was first presented with an organization chart of the new agency, he turned it upside down, placing the PCVs at the top and told his staff that in the Peace Corps everyone worked for the Volunteers.

It has been a long time since the Peace Corps has been run this was. We have come, too, a long way from when Shriver ran the agency from the fifth floor of the old Maitatico Building drawing to him the best and the brightest of the young and talented arriving in Washington with John F. Kennedy’s administration, men and women like Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins, Charlie Peters, Bill Josephson, Bill Haddad, Franklin Williams, Betty Harris, George Carter, Nan McEvoy, Dick Ottinger, Nancy Gore, Sally Bowles, Doug Kiker, Glenn Ferguson, and, of course, Bill Moyers. These were the best and the brightest and they would go on to become senators, ambassadors, congressmen, novelists, corporate executives, college presidents, television journalists, political operatives, non-profit executives, and to start award winning magazines of their own.

The list of pioneers is long, and there are many more names I could add. I could add the names of the first Volunteers who joined the agency in those early years when no one knew if serving in the Peace Corps might be a black mark on their careers for the rest of their lives.

The “Peace Corps” was so new in the early Sixties, so untested, so revolutionary (yes, children, in its day, it truly was) that these Volunteers were pinning their lives and ambitions on an idea that was scorned by many, laughed at by people who ‘knew better,’ the subject of cartoons in newspapers, and made a joke of on Jack Parr’s late night television show.

My wife, Judy, who never was a PCV (Forgive me, Farther, but yes, I did marry outside the Peace Corps) has over the years listened endlessly to my long ago Shriver stories, but she had never met the man.

Then she had her first exposure to Sarge at a fund raising dinner for the forerunner of the NPCA, a dinner organized by Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1964-66)  and  Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964-66), and attended by just about every famous RPCV from Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) to Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967-69) and when Shriver spoke to the crowd she, too, was caught up, as we were all once again, with his charm and good humor and his way of looking at the world as a place where change happens, where we all could make a difference with what we did with our lives.

That night in Washington when we stood to cheer Sarge, and, in truth, to cheer our ‘better angels,” Judy turned to me and nodded knowingly that now she understood how all of us in the Sixties were swept up by this man’s personality and would follow him to the ends of the earth as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Obama has given us hope again and a glimpse of what it was like once in the time of Kennedy’s Camelot, the thousand days of the New Frontier. What Obama needs now, what we need now for the Peace Corps, is someone who can turn around the tide of apathy towards the agency in Congress, who can bring back to Washington the spark that lit a thousand fires in the villages of the world, someone who can make the Peace Corps matter.

Let me close my list of 10 Steps with a story told and retold in the old days of Peace Corps/Washington and then committed to paper in Coates Redmon (PW/Staff  1961-65 ) charming history of the early days of the agency, Come As You Are.

The story goes this way.

Tom Mathews was at a ski resort in Utah in February 1961, sitting in the lodge’s bar after a late day run. He ordered a drink, then glanced around the room, looking for a familiar face. He spotted instead the newly famous figure of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, also in ski clothes. It was odd, Mathews thought, that McNamara would be in the bar. The New Frontier was known to be notoriously workaholic, so what was President Kennedy’s top Pentagon man during in Utah two months after the historic inauguration?

The telephone behind the bar rang and the bartender answered it casually, then began nodding earnestly, suddenly turning and announcing, “Washington is calling.”

McNamara rose immediately and reached across the bar to take the call.

“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Secretary,” explained the bartender. “It’s not for you. It’s for Tom.”

Tom Mathews took the phone, baffled as who might be wanting him. He didn’t know anyone in Washington or with the new administration.

A voice full of energy and impatience rang across the phone line. “Tom, this is Sarge Shriver calling from the Peace Corps in Washington. I’ve heard a lot of great things about you, and I want you to come work with us and help put this new thing together. How soon can you get here? What about tomorrow?”

“Well,” said the utterly flummoxed Mathews, “I’m on vacation and I have nothing but ski clothes and a bad sunburn.”

“That’s fine, Tom. Come as you are. Seeya tomorrow.” Click.

The next day, Tom Mathews arrived on the fifth floor of the Maitatico Building. He was still in his ski clothes and he went to work for the Peace Corps as deputy director of Public Information.

Let President Obama, on this the 175thDay since his own inauguration, appoint another Sarge Shriver to run the Peace Corps and the best and the brightest of this generation will come as they are to change the world.