“Remembering Peace Corps work: ‘It was our job to save the world’” (Tanganyika)

Thanks to a ‘heads up’ from Dan Campbell (El Salvador 1974–77)

Remembering Peace Corps work

“It was our job to save the world”
After 57 years, four men still gather to reminisce

From the Jefferson City, Missouri, News Tribune

June 6, 2018
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From left, Peter De Simone, Lenny Bloom, Burton Segall and George Johnson [Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.]

Four men who set out to change the world nearly 60 years ago gathered in Jefferson City this week to reminisce and play folk music.

The men were members of the first wave of young adults sent overseas as part of the Peace Corps, created by John F. Kennedy shortly after he became president.

Several men who were in the first wave of Peace Corps Volunteers gathered for a reunion this week to share stories and reminisce. They also share some that helped form them and the direction in life it caused them to remember Peace Corps work: ‘It was our job to save the world’

Lenny Bloom, now 77, said he and his colleagues [all Tanganyika 1961-63] had become bored or disenfranchised with the status quo in Washington. They felt like they didn’t have much of a voice. During a campaign speech to University of Michigan students in the middle of the night, Kennedy challenged them to contribute two years of their lives to helping people in developing countries.

That was the beginning of the Peace Corps, said Peter De Simone, 80, of Jefferson City.

They came from different backgrounds. De Simone had attended the University of Connecticut; Bloom, City College of New York; George Johnson, 80, Princeton; and Burton Segall, 84, the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, University of North Carolina and New York University.

“It was our job to save the world,” De Simone said. “I got bored working for the New Haven Railroad. And we were adventurous.”

The quartet was among groups of engineers, surveyors and geologists sent to Tanganyika (which later became Tanzania) to build sustainable infrastructure.

The region was poorly affected by the end of British colonial rule, Bloom said.

“There were no highways or year-round communication,” he said. And with the British gone, “There were no doctors, lawyers, engineers or other technical people.”

On top of that, the period in East Africa was “turbulent,” Segall said.

Segall said he was about 80 miles from the capital, in the Morogoro region, where he was in charge of construction of large road and highway projects.

Johnson was an engineer in charge of a project in the far southern province within the country. That province was often cut off from the rest of the country by a river that continuously washed away bridges. His responsibility was to build a road to a part of the province where the river was more “bridgeable.”

The men didn’t work together in Africa. However, the Peace Corps sponsored reunions on significant anniversaries. The men met at events such as the 10th or 25th anniversaries. And they found they had in common a love of folksy music.

“(Eventually) a guy in our group who is very energetic organized reunions of our Tanzania group,” Johnson said. “The four of us liked it and had our own.”

Segall began inviting the men to his home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

“Folk music was the popular music in the United States,” Bloom said. “There were so many tunes that were familiar.”

Each of the men picked up instruments. De Simone plays acoustic guitar. On Tuesday, sitting in the High Street Retreat on East High Street in Jefferson City, where the men met on the 57th anniversary of their foray into the Peace Corps, he played a mandolin. Their wives left them alone in the afternoon to enjoy their activity together.

Johnson strummed an acoustic guitar, Bloom broke out his banjo and Segall stood alongside playing the ukulele.

“Music, as we became older, has become more and more an important part of our lives,” Bloom said. “It’s deeper than camaraderie — it’s an affection.”

Folk music, in particular, is meaningful to the men, Segall said. It represents issues that were important to them nearly 60 years ago, and it represents that time that was important to them.

Kennedy’s inaugural address also remains inspirational for him today, Bloom said.

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” he said as his bare feet tapped out a rhythm on the hardwood floor. “And that Kennedy election campaign represented a sea-change in culture. He was an admirable speaker and thoughtful guy.”

 

3 Comments

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  • I DON’T remember it that way. More like the following I wrote before:

    PEACE IS A PLACE IN EVERY BREATH
    GREAT MATTERS THAT RE-ARC THE BRIDGE HOPE AND RE-MAKE THE RAINBOW

    I believed in progress, in the basic goodness of persons.
    There was a stranger within me, an intruder who was not
    me, yet part of me, who swallowed as I drank.
    I’ve lived as if it will die when I die.
    I now begin to see that my ‘stranger’
    inside me is the sharpie fine-pointed pen
    “I” wrote with, but really is a life force who led,
    encouraged, lifted me through my nights.

    This is not mythic: it is here now. I pass
    out of history: this continues. While I live
    I am steward, mechanic, actor, helper.
    I matter; my actions matter; my thoughts matter.
    In my ending my beginning is organized into this
    great matter. Peace is a place in every breath.
    We need to utter it ‘now’ while we can.

    We didn’t invent ourselves nor get it off the grass
    way back down that long winding longing line.
    We have been seeking to be a people from the
    beginning of our supposed origins. Will we end
    before we have exploded and regrouping merged?
    Staying home doesn’t mean some kind of surrender.
    New definitions for older versions are visions bound in blood .
    Toil can re-make the rainbow to re-arc the bridge hope.
    © copyright Edward Mycue

    p.s. And I recall it being almost being drilled into us that summer of 1961 (we were going to Ghana training at UC Berkeley) that we were going to do a job the best we would be able to do. We had high hopes, but we weren’t deluded as to roles.

  • PEACE CORPS – my comment on a NYTIMES 1971 article looking back then 56 years –Edward Mycue: What the heck! This is a well-meaning beating-about-the-bush article. With it is one of the photos taken late August 1961 (with reporters in front) and we initial Peace Corps volunteers gathered behind before heading off to the first assignments.

    I was with the group that went to Ghana and that went out first that very afternoon on a Convair propeller airplane that carried we 49 (the 50th, Arnold, came a bit later), plus our teachers from that summer training program at UCBerkeley, and in the next few days 3 other PC volunteer groups winged off on their ways to their countries (if my memory pins are lined-up).

    All the words in the TIMES’ story just to say that the Peace Corps Volunteers were looked to and at as representatives of the USofA. Readers might have been able to guess that already. AND NOW TODAY wow they have to explain the USA probably as

    THE COUNTRY OF THE BROKEN PIANO.

    Well you are always on you own anyway I guess and so what is new except maybe danger and shame and then just hunkering down to do a good job. Yet it is a good article because it gives examples.

    How young we were then (I was 24), unafraid, hopeful, excited and maybe now and then a concern might waft by (usually us questioning our own adequacy) and we did ok though over the decades going on with new groups with bumps and stutters and trips on and again but still pressing onward. We were up to the tasks then and had a lot of support from our own people (peoples) and our government / our parents who trusted us who were their own (and so they also trusted themselves by extension).
    Well, just wondering here now maybe a bit of maundering after 56 years now and age 80 surprised how the time went and at the sorrows mixed in the joys and the concerns now for the world and our USA’s part in it. There is a world away from my remembered hopes and worldview then and the consumerfrenzy that wraps our national ethic now. Look at that photo with JFK AND US then. He was near my dad Jack Mycue’s age. They both died young, within 2 years of each other. My mom Ruth Mycue lived on until 1997 at 82. They are green in memory. I have aged and look back half in sorrow, partly grateful, hoping yet.

    © Copyright Edward Mycue, San Francisco, California Friday 7July 2017 11:00am

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