Jack Hood Vaughn is 91 years old. He is writing his memoirs. In fact, he has been writing his memoirs for almost as long as I have known him. He has finished 13 of 16 projected chapters. Jack calls his memoirs, Kill the Gringo.

You see Jack was a college boxer, and a professional fighter, who fought under the name of  “Johnny the Hood.” One summer while still at the University of Michigan he went to fight in Mexico to make money to pay for college. In his first fight in Juarez as “Johnny the Hood,” the crowd chanted, “Mata al Gringo.” Not knowing Spanish then, Jack asked what that meant, he was told, “Welcome to Juarez.”

Jack Vaughn speaks with a friend at the University of Michigan

Jack Vaughn speaks with a friend at the University of Michigan - photo by Jan Worth

Jack came home to Michigan again this last month for the first of the celebrations of the 50 years of the Peace Corps. There are not many who are around who were kids on campus with Jack Hood Vaughn. He had outlived them all, and what a wonderful life he has lived.

He was a Marine officer in World War II; the boxing coach at the University of Michigan (even sparred a few rounds with Sugar Ray Robinson in Detroit); a USIA, and later State Department officer in Latin America; an AID official in West Africa; the head of Latin American operations for the Peace Corps; ambassador to Panama (in the era of anti-US rioting and negotiations for a new Canal treaty); Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America (when Johnson invaded the Dominican Republic); Shriver’s successor as Peace Corps Director, Ambassador to Colombia; President of the National Urban Coalition; head of Plaza Sesamo (the Latin American version of Sesame Street); Dean of International Studies at Florida International University; and chief of various environmental organizations.

And to top that off, he’s a Republican!

At the University of Michigan in mid-October Jack spoke about his connection with the Peace Corps. It wasn’t a long talk. At 91, he has learned to say a lot in a few words. And he was kind enough, thanks to his wife Leftie, to let me reprint what he had to say at Michigan, though Leftie warned me in an email: “Dear John: Attached please find the rough copy of the speech Jack gave at Ann Arbor.  I say ‘rough’ because Jack never sticks to the original script.  Heaven only knows what he said there.”

Well, we’ll take our chances, this is (mostly) what Jack Hood Vaughn, the second Director of the Peace Corps, had to say.

The Peace Corps, We Are On Your Side

IF IT IS TRUE that home is where the heart is, then Ann Arbor is my home. The University of Michigan is my alma mater. It was here that uncounted relatives and I were educated, including three of my sisters, and my daughter.  It was here that I taught romance languages and coached boxing.  It was here, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that my brothers from the Phi Gam House and I marched down to the Marine Corps recruiting station to enlist in World War II. Ann Arbor is my home. I love Ann Arbor.

The Peace Corps is also my home. I couldn’t resign from the Foreign Service fast enough to join Kennedy’s call, so eloquently expressed on these steps. Working with Sargent Shriver, I was responsible for introducing the Peace Corps to Latin America, which remains an exciting and vibrant Peace Corps success story to this day. Succeeding Shriver as Director was the toughest and most rewarding job I ever had. I was completely at home in the Peace Corps.  It has been a huge part of my life for almost 50 years. I love the Peace Corps and its Volunteers.

Student activists, particularly at Michigan and other mid-western universities, jumped on the Kennedy campaign bandwagon early and forcefully. I suspect it was those early Volunteers who opened JFK’s eyes to the power and possibility of post-election volunteerism.

Peace Corps Volunteers epitomize service: dedicating at least two years of their lives to living among, and helping, the poorest of the poor in all four corners of the world.  They do messy, backbreaking work under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They overcome loneliness, hardship and challenging obstacles. But they are the authors of uncounted success stories. When they return to the United States they reorient themselves and their careers to make important contributions in all aspects of American life. Their commitment to service is boundless. This is the previously overlooked talent Kennedy tapped into when he spoke here 50 years ago. With the Peace Corps Kennedy made ugly Americans obsolete.

The last time I was with President Kennedy, we were standing on a balcony overlooking the massive main square in Bogota, Colombia. It was early pandemonium. The roaring and applauding of over a million people was deafening.

“Can you understand what is happening here, Senor Presidente, just what has caused this unique demonstration in front of us?” asked host President Alberto Lleras Camargo.

“My people believe that you are on their side.”

That was, and still is, the beauty of the Peace Corps and why we are here today to recall JFK’s message of service and love that October night.