I’m not sure how many of you caught Chris Matthews (Swaziland 1968–70) Hardball program last night (September 22nd), but he spoke about the anniversary of the Peace Corps agency being approved by Congress. I realize Matthews can be annoying, the way he interrupts everyone, but this is an eloquent statement about Peace Corps service and Sarge Shriver, and since Matthews gave it himself, he didn’t need to interrupt!
LET ME FINISH WITH THE FACT that today, September 22, is the anniversary — now just one year shy of a half-century — of Congress approving the US Peace Corps.
Ask anyone who’s volunteered and they’ll tell you it was the opportunity of their life — the moment they broke out of their world — into a larger one, when they came face to face — on the other side of the globe — with a very different human experience.
I went to Swaziland as part of the first Peace Corps group in that southern African kingdom. There were fifty of us and we went into a country with very little experience with Americans. The relationship was fresh and crisp, hopeful on both sides, and grateful, too.
I’ve kept up with a half dozen guys I went over there with — friends for life. We shared something out in the African sun without electricity and television and telephones, out where you lived life with real people, taught what you could, learned much more, found yourself in the close company with people very surprisingly much like you.
I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when people were so downright nice to me as those older store owners — Swazi traders — I taught and worked with. I can’t imagine knowing a group of government officials like those who oversaw us who were more positive than the men I worked with in Swaziland.
If you meet me I’ll tell you the stories of what it was like in the late 1960s in Africa — when those countries were first getting their independence, when you could experience as I did the afterglow of empire, when you could live in a world bursting with hope and youth and belief in what is possible when people rule their own lands.
I have one person to thank for the Peace Corps most of all.
His name is Sargent Shriver, who put the outfit together, a dreamer, a can-do American who knew the spirit of our country, our common faith with those young countries in Africa and Asia and Latin America that came to life in the 1960s. Sarge Shriver did two things that made the Peace Corps great. He made it clear that it would be run by volunteers, that they, not the staff in Washington, would be the front-line stars, and rule-number two, that no one could stay in the Peace Corps for over five years. It would never become a tired old organization dominated by the way things used to be.
It was Sarge Shriver, yes, who knew how to build something — and boy did he do it!