In feature articles The New York Times and International Herald Tribune have said that here is a poet “whose muse is a world traveler.”
Andrew Oerke has lived many lives. After suggesting, he told me, the idea of the Peace Corps to Jerry Clark, Kennedy’s campaign manager in Wisconsin, he went on to become a Peace Corps Director in Africa and the Caribbean, and for many years president of a private and voluntary organization working in developing countries. Oerke worked and visited in more than 160 countries, is a Golden Gloves champ, football player, university professor and Poet-in-Residence, dean of administration at one of the largest community colleges, U.S. Korean War veteran, World Bank consultant, and consultant to the United Nations on the Gulf War, on financial services, and on the environment.
Mr. Oerke was also the first Director of the International Folk Festival on the Mall for the Smithsonian, and as Dean of Administration for the Medical Center of Miami-Dade Community College started one of the country’s first Wellness Institutes. He has also pioneered microfinance in more than 60 disadvantaged countries. Mr. Oerke has studied at many universities in the US and abroad, and was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship at the Freie Universität in Berlin, and scholarships at the University of Iowa writers’ workshop, where he studied under Mark Strand, and at Baylor University where he studied Wellerisms with Charles G. Smith.
Andrew Oerke’s work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Mademoiselle, and in many other publications in the U.S., England, France, Germany, Lebanon, Malawi, Kenya, the Philippines, Jamaica, and Mexico. He has published five books of poetry. In 2003, he was given the award for literature by the UN Society of Writers and Artists. He passed away in early May in Florida. The cause of death was purportedly complications from the flu, recurrent malaria, and a chronic heart condition.
This is a remembrance of Andy from one of his former PCVs.
In Memoriam: Andrew Oerke
by Jack Allison, RPCV Malawi 1966-69
Known fondly as Andy during his service as Associate Director and on to Director of Peace Corps/Malawi in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Andrew Oerke was the consummate humanitarian. After joining the Peace Corps in 1967 as a desk officer for Uganda and Tanzania, he had initially wanted to be a PCV in Africa; however, because he was married with children, he was eventually assigned to Malawi. His final assignment with the Peace Corps was country director in Jamaica.
Andy received his education at Baylor University (BA, ‘52, MA ‘59), and remained fiercely loyal to and appreciative of Baylor for fostering his interest in poetry. He also studied at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as at the Freie Universitat in Berlin on a Fulbright. His poetry was published in the New Yorker, Mademoiselle, and Poetry. His most recent books were San Miguel Allende, and The African Stilldancer. After college Andy served as poet-in-residence at St. Andrew’s College in North Carolina.
Having been introduced to international community development in the Peace Corps, Andy served as president of Partnership for Productivity (PfP) beginning in 1976, and became a pioneer in microfinance. In the late 1980s he became CEO of the Greater Caribbean Energy and Environment Foundation (GCEEF), and led that august entity with his long-time partner, Dr. Anitra Thorhaug who served as its president. Their development work together in Haiti became legendary.
Andy’s contributions to the establishment and evolution of microfinance have been manifold. His ‘generative model’ of microfinance shows considerable promise for developing countries.
The Peace Corps family, as well as all those he touched in so many countries, will definitely miss Andy’s eternally optimistic, giving, and supportive nature. He was a gentle leader, a gifted poet, an enthusiastic spokesman, and a faithful friend. What a fantastic legacy, and what an enduring, marvelous role model for us all! He is indeed sorely missed…
Recently Andy Oerke was asked in an interview what was his greatest achievement. He responded, “I think it’s that I have been able to fail. My greatest accomplishment was trying to understand what life’s all about and transmitting it through poetry and action. I couldn’t do this unless I was willing to fail.”
Dr. Jack Allison retired from clinical medicine four years ago after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine. He responded to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, where he treated hundreds of quake victims. Prior to retirement, he served as Chief of Staff of the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Before that, Dr. Allison was Chief of Staff at the VAMC in Syracuse, New York, a position he had held since 1999.
Dr. Allison received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1966, and earned a Master of Public Health degree from the UNC School of Public Health in 1971. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years in Malawi, Central Africa.