#5 Mad Men of the Peace Corps – Med Bennett

I mentioned that in those early days of 1960s the agency was full of Mad Men (and a few Mad Women) who were living in a world-of-work atmosphere very much like the provocative AMC TV drama Mad Men.

They were wonderful characters, some charming, many nice, and a few not very . . . 

vOne terrific guy was Meridan Hunt “Med” Bennett. He was sort of a  ‘Peace Corps Jimmy Stewart.’ I met him in Ethiopia in, I think, 1965. He was totally unlike the smooth types that crowded Shriver’s big conference table back in D.C., but he was smarter than most, a writer, and a farmer who had grown up in the Canadian Rockies. It was so remote a farm, he said, that he had to ride three miles on a horse to attend a one-room schoolhouse.

vHe farmed when haying was done with horses and a beaver slide stacker. He rode the range, raised vegetable garden, did canning. The whole nine yards. I remember walking through a market in Bahar Dar and listening to his read off the list of grains, picking them up just by sight.

Oh, and he played the violin and was a first-class champion skier. He did it all.

Med Bennett in Cyprus

After WW II, he went to Yale on the GI bill and studied geology, married and returned to Alberta to raise his kids and farm but that turned out badly, and so, as he told me on long trips up and down the Gondar Road in Ethiopia, he became a writer.

That, too, didn’t work out, he said, so he worked construction and drove a school bus, and finally, after all these failures, Kennedy was elected, and Med, having followed the course of the Peace Corps, went to Washington to looking for a job. The Peace Corps sent him to Cyprus as director of one of the agency’s shortest in-country tours when war broke out at Christmas, 1963, on the island.

Nevertheless, he found a job in the Peace Corps that fit his moods, skills, knowledge of languages and personal history. He became an evaluator. He went to work for Charlie Peters who sent him off to  Nigeria, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Nepal and Pakistan, as well as Ethiopia where we met up and I heard his tales of life of farming in Canada and the American West.

He left the Peace Corps in 1966 and with David Hapgood, another fine writer, wrote Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps published by Little, Brown in 1968. They dedicated the book to “HCN”, which I always thought was a nice touch.

Then with his wife and children, he moved to Jackson Hole and another small farm as well as take on state environmental issues, and make a living as a mental health counselor.

What I saw in Bennett, besides his humor and wonderful laid back ways, was his great faith in what Peace CorpsVolunteers could do. Here’s an example of what I mean.

In those early years Shriver and others (Peters and Mankiewicz, etc.) were pushing community development Volunteers. Frank Mankiewicz who later said the whole idea (community development projects) wasn’t the answer. He felt the Peace Corps had been “over-optimistic” in its belief that every “red-blooded young American” could change the world.

Kevin Lowther and C. Payne Lucas in their book on the agency, Keeping Kennedy’s Promise: The Peace Corps, Unmet Hope of the New Frontier published by Westview Press in 1978) said that most community development projects were “pure fantasy.”

Bennett, however, in his evaluation reports would disagree, writing, “the Peace Corps’ ability to work in community development has been proven in Colombia.” Since much of the work was undefined, and the Volunteers were free to tackle everything, they could! Most importantly in those early days, Bennett found that women working even in the machismo-dominated campos proved as effective as men, and Med raised the flag for women PCVs in the early years, saying that they could function successfully as community development Volunteers.

It was because of Med, you might say, and what he wrote in his evaluations, that women kept their place in the campos and in the agency.

See, the guy could write after all.

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  • Thanks John, As a idealistic 22 year old who thought he could change the world all by myself by teaching biology to students in a developing country, it is very interesting to learn about what was going on behind the scenes in DC.

    Sometimes I wonder if it was naive idealism or hubris that made me think I could change the world. Of course I found I couldn’t but I know I made it possible for hundreds of students to live a better life because the Peace Corps sent me to be their teacher.
    Jim Wolter, Malaya I, ’61-‘6

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