Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962-64) had returned from overseas and enrolled in graduate school at Cornell. There were a small group of RPCVs at the school from Ethiopia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, India, and several other host countries, and as RPCV well do, they gathered together to tell stories of “when I was in …..”

Bill Olson was an undergraduate at the same time and when he got word that he had been accepted to the Peace Corps and assigned Ethiopia/Eritrea he went off to find ‘anyone’ who knew ‘anything’ about the Horn of Africa. He found Wayne Handlos.

“Bill and I immediately hit it off,” Wayne recalls. “I suppose today we would have ‘bonded.’ I found Bill to be a gregarious, enthusiastic person. A nice guy. Unassurming. Non-threatening. Searching. A degree at hand, but for what purpose? This last a feeling I’m sure many of us shared as we wondered about volunteering for the Peace Corps in our own time. He was from the Finger Lakes region of upper New York state near Ithaca. He had a mother and a father, salt of the earth kind of people who lived middle class unassuming lives in a nice ranch house in the woods.”

Wayne would spend time with Bill’s family. He met his parents, brother, sister-in-law, girl friend, roommate. He made them an Ethiopian meal; he showed them his slides and movies. 

“I learned much about Bill and liked him a lot. He was a very nice person searching for a path; a bit lost but looking. In due course Bill went off to UCLA for training. My closest Peace Corps friend–another Ethie 1, Dennis Ekberg–was one of the trainers.”

From Training, Bill Olson wrote back to Wayne, “I met Dennis Ekberg right away. The kids here are extremely pleasant in spite of the fact they are from the East. I start Amharic lessons in about 10 minutes.”

Later he would write, “….The Peace Corps just bought me a new set of eye glasses–20 dollar frames & all….I haven’t selected myself out–nor do I intend to– though I must say Amharic sure discourages me. …The Dentist is also taking quite a bit of time–they found 10 cavities–after my dentist at home declared them perfect before I left.”

More letters would arrive from Ethiopia/Eritrea. Bill was assigned to Adi Ugri, a small town of 15 thousand some 52 kilometers south of Asmara. The school was from 8-11 grades and had 1,200 students. There were no labs, few books. Six of the teachers, out of 60, were PCVs.

Bill taught 10th grade science, a total of 160 students. He had, as he wrote Wayne, “no labs, and only 50 books.”

Bill loved water and he went down to the Red Sea and the city of Massoua on the train. “How beautiful a ride to get to an absolute hell hole.”

He would go again and again to the sea, going to the Green Island. “It is quite cool there now and I spend the days skin diving. I now have my own diving mask and everything so I spend most of my time there in the water,” he wrote Wayne. “I brought many echinoderms, mollusks, corals, shark bones etc. back to my students. They were most excited about a giant hermit crab, which I found.”

By Christmas he was, with all the new Volunteers, in Dire Dawa at a conference, “what a waste of time,” he wrote Wayne, then added, “I ran into a job offer for the summer. An English game officer is here  from Uganda to set up game parks and he is looking for some help. Since I have an agriculture background and some experience in conservation the Peace Corps wants me to work with him. I have to talk with him about it in Addis during spring vacation.

Life, however, in Adi Ugri was not perfect. The University students drew up a resolution that the Peace Corps was very bad because it corrupted the morals of students. They also said the American Field Service should stop because that as well as the Peace Corps was getting some of the students exposed to too much affluence and progress so that they couldn’t be happy in their own country.

One of the PCVs, a woman, was accused, Bill wrote home, “of all kind of horrible things because a teacher caught her reading A Political HIstory of Ethiopia–a banned book. The PCV, who spoke Tigrinya, was attacked by about 50 students with rocks, bricks, sticks later in the day when she went for a ride out of town on her horse.

Still, having visited 11 towns, Bill would say, “I still think Adi Ugri is the most most pleasant place I have been.”

He had also started to teach physics to his students, learning as he taught. He had no books, so at  night he typed up sheets and ran them off for the students to read in class the next day.

He was also waiting for spring, Easter vacation. And he was also thinking of his own future. “I am thinking of going to Australia or New Zealand to live from here. I don’t want to stay in the States over a few months when I come home. Lord knows, even thought I will be 26 the army may even get me.”

Bill added a note to his letter homr telling Wayne to tell Peggy Drury (another Ethiopian I PCV) that was was “hoping to see Jimma this Easter” where Peggy had served as a Volunteer.

“Write soon; best wishes and good speed. I’ll write when I get home from Gambella—Bill’

Bill Olson would make it to Jimma and then to Gambella. Wayne Handlos, and the other RPCVs back in  Ithaca would hear on the radio the news of Bill’s tragic death and later read of it in TIME magazine.

“I was privileged to be a pallbearer at his funeral,” Wayne finishes his account, “on a blustery spring day in 1966–the only season Bill missed. His grave is in a wonderful, old cemetery on the hills overloooking Cayuga Lake.”

End of Part Two