Now that Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams has announced PCVs will be returning to Colombia, I thought it would be interesting to recall what one of the original PCVs to Colombia, Ron Schwarz (Colombia 1961-63), remembers about his first days in the Peace Corps.
From the day after JFK’s inauguration until June 26, 1961, Sarge was surrounded by staff he recruited. The best and the brightest. But not on the 26th of June. That day, the Director was surrounded by strangers, Colombia I Trainees. No one knew if they were the best, or the brightest.
Sarge was ill at ease, with reason,” Ron remembers. “The selection committee complained of the “paucity of good, fully qualified candidates.” Some were high school graduates; others had completed only two years of college. A dozen or so had not even taken the Peace Corps test. References for were incomplete, few met minimal language qualifications, and our “special skills” fell far short of what the Colombian government, Peace Corps and CARE, the project administrator, had requested.
“It was a hot, humid day in New Brunswick, New Jersey,” Ron said, “and Sarge removed his jacket. With the Bay of Pigs fiasco the most recent media story on Latin America, Shriver warned the Trainees that these were deeply troubled times. ‘This may be our last chance to show that we are really qualified to lead the free world.’ He then told a story of an exchange he’d had with an Indian woman in India during a recent visit to her country.
“‘She reminded me that Indians knew the American Revolution as the first successful revolution in the world and asked me, ‘Can you bring it here? There is a great valuelessness in the world today. The Russians have their system, but America has spirit and idealism. Can your Peace Corps bring that to India?””
Shriver continued: ‘That is what the world wants today. The American voice has got to be clear and decisively open. In Colombia, Peace Corps will help them achieve what they want in their own free way . . . you can do more than 10 guys like me because you can work with them and show them. It’s like work on the old American frontier. You can show them how to achieve a free way of life.’
He added that what these PCVs would accomplish in community development in Colombia ‘may well have a greater impact for good than the entire $600,000,000 aid program for Latin America.’
Shriver then opened the meeting to questions.
A shout from the back of the bleachers, “What about horse training?”
Sarge replied, “I don’t know about the horse training. Down there you’ll ride mules. I know there’s a difference, but the riding principle is the same.”
Not an encouraging answer for those whose “riding” had been done on New York subways and not exactly sure of “the difference.”
A bespectacled trainee asked, “Can we write articles for hometown media?”
“You’re going overseas to help with community development and not to become freelance writers,” Sarge told him.
During these exchanges, Sarge also revealed that a clothing manufacturer had offered to supply the entire corps with blue jean outfits but was refused.
“Why?” asked a trainee in row two.
“Because the gift would be against the law,” Shriver replied.
Ron Schwarz stood up and shouted, “Then why don’t you get Congress to change the law?”
Sarge immediately replied with his famous grin, “That’s the kind of spirit we like to see.”
Ten weeks later as Colombia I boarded an Avianca Super Constellation to Colombia, they were handed duffel bags with a workman’s wardrobe, courtesy of Sears & Roebuck.
[Ron Schwarz became an anthropologist after the Peace Corps and spent 12 years doing research and training undergraduates in Colombia and Africa. He taught at Williams College and the Johns Hopkins University and later established a development consulting firm in Africa, where he lived for over 20 years. I'm not sure what happened to his workman's wardrobe, courtesy of Sears & Roebuck.]