50 Years after Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps — article in Chicago Tribune

[This article appeared today, 10-10-2010, in the Chicago Tribune. It was written by John Keilman, a Tribune reporter. As of today I am not seeing signs that the agency understands that the 50th is a great recruitment opportunity. The Peace Corps, of course, is allowed to spend money to recruit, but my guess is that they are afraid of the IG’s office, and the Peace Corps lawyers — a bunch of hanger-ons from the Bush years — who will slap their hands for using the lives and experiences of RPCVs to ‘sell’ the idea that the Peace Corps was worthy once, and is still worthy today. Of course these lawyers, and others key people in the Peace Corps administration, never were PCVs, and they do not have a feel for the organization. They just want jobs! I’m sure they are also afraid to volunteer and live the life of a PCV.)

Articles such as this one will begin to appear all over the U.S. in the coming months and we can only hope that the two RPCVs running the agency — Aaron and Carrie — will see the 50th is not only an opportunity to recruit, but it is also an opportunity to grow the number of PCVs.

Republicans are going to take over the House in a few weeks and they are not in a ‘growing the agency’ mood. My guess is that the Tea Baggers will also be ready to shut the Peace Corps down as being a waste of money. Now is the time for the Peace Corps to make a stand and make their case.

Pioneers in the Peace Corps

50 years after Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, some of the earliest volunteers look back with pride

By John Keilman, Tribune reporter

October 9, 2010

It was well after midnight at the University of Michigan when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a short speech that would, in thousands of small ways, reshape the world.

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” he asked a crowd of students 50 years ago this week. “Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?

“On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.”

Thus was born the idea of the Peace Corps, and when Kennedy took office the next year, he swiftly made it a reality. He called for volunteers to spend two years improving the health, education and economic prospects of some of the poorest people on earth – and, not coincidentally in those Cold War years, to burnish America’s global reputation.

Thousands of Americans stepped forward. One was Nomenee Robinson, then a young architect and city planner working in Chicago’s Water Department.

He had an itch for adventure and a desire to help others. And by the autumn of 1961, he was in India’s Punjab state, assisting with building projects in a country struggling to gain its footing after centuries of colonial rule.

Life there was hard. Robinson had to use bricks made of sand and straw and just a dab of cement. He was on constant guard not to offend his hosts with an easygoing joke. And once, while he was building trekking huts in the Himalayas, his pack horses were killed by wild animals.

Yet through every difficulty, his enthusiasm never flagged.

“There was a challenge in understanding how to work with another culture,” he said. “That excited me.”

Robinson, who is Michelle Obama’s uncle, is one of five Chicago-area residents who shared their memories of the early days of the Peace Corps with the Tribune. Volunteering in the glow of Camelot, their optimism was tested by rough conditions and occasional doubts about whether they were really making a difference.

There was no doubt, though, about the enormous difference the Peace Corps made in their own lives. It forged a global consciousness and a service-minded attitude that stayed with them for decades.

Robinson, now 73, a retired businessman turned Peace Corps recruiter, was reminded of that just the other day. Walking through downtown, he spotted a turbaned Sikh and greeted the man in Punjabi.

“The guy flipped,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Wow, you talk just like a villager!’ I don’t have enough of the language left, but when I see a Sikh, I can say enough to warm his heart. I can take that to the grave with me.”

Virginia DeLancey, 70 Nigeria, 1962-64

Growing up in Cleveland, Virginia DeLancey was as sheltered as could be. When her friends scattered during college vacation breaks, her parents ordered her home, not wanting her to be out in the world unsupervised.

Soon after graduation, though, she and her new husband broke away by joining the Peace Corps. They were assigned to Nigeria, a country they knew little about.

They wound up in Buguma, a town in the Niger Delta that was a 21/2-hour motorized canoe ride away from the nearest sizable city. She was assigned a teaching job in a private business school and ended up instructing students in everything from English to sewing to “netball,” an English version of basketball.

The school was, to be polite, minimalist: Its walls and roof were made of corrugated metal, and when rain poured from the sky, the noise was deafening.

“We ended up doing a whole lot of shouting while we were teaching,” she said.

The school also had a library that consisted of a single bookcase holding a volume of Shakespeare and a few books supplied by the Russian Embassy. She managed to wheedle donations from American bibliophiles, and by the time her service ended, the books took up an entire room. The students named it the DeLancey Library.

DeLancey went on to get a doctorate in economics, and spent years teaching and doing research in Cameroon, Egypt and Somalia. Now living in Morton Grove, she still does occasional consulting on international development.

“I never would have dreamed it,” she said of her decades of globe hopping. “(The Peace Corps) causes a lot of changes in your life. Changes you never expected.”

Jim Wolter, 71 Malaysia, 1961-66

The telegram informing Jim Wolter that he had been accepted into the Peace Corps arrived at a fortuitous moment.

“I was actually supposed to get married, but my fiancee and I weren’t really sure about that,” he said. “So for me, (joining the corps) was a socially acceptable way of standing up to my mother and prospective mother-in-law.”

He was 22, a Chicago kid who had traveled only as far as DeKalb, when a plane whisked him off to Malaysia. He emerged into a blast of heat and humidity and a vista so green that it looked artificial.

He was given a science teaching assignment in a small coastal town, and each morning he would cycle to the market to buy goat organs that his students could dissect – or, in some cases, take home for dinner.

He later moved to a school that supposedly needed a math teacher. But when he got there, he found students who were so advanced that they didn’t need his help. They earned some of the nation’s highest scores on a standardized test, but when he was praised for his teaching genius, he protested that he hadn’t really done anything. “I got a reputation as a great math teacher – and very modest,” he said.

He stayed a teacher when he came home – joined by a wife, it so happened, he met in Malaysia – and pursued a career in special education. Even stateside, the lessons he learned in the heat of the tropics proved invaluable.

“Problem solving, getting resources, working with people and having absolute confidence you can handle anything thrown your way – that’s what the Peace Corps did for me,” he said.

Barbara Janes, 71 Pakistan, 1961-63

Before Barbara Janes was sent to Pakistan, she spent a few weeks in Puerto Rico in a sort of tropical boot camp. She learned to stay afloat in the water for hours, rappelled down the side of a dam and spent a night alone in the jungle, sleeping in the glow of bioluminescent plants.

It might have seemed like strange preparation for a teaching job, but it was in keeping with the indomitable spirit that infused many of the early Peace Corps volunteers.

“When I graduated from college, we thought that the adults had ruined this world,” she said. “‘Get out of the way, give us six months and we’ll solve all your problems.’ What I realized several years later is that it’s not going to happen. You just pick your niche and try to influence it, and you do the best you can in that small area. If enough people do that, more change will happen.”

She taught biology and science at women’s colleges and designed a program that trained students to become teachers, instructing rural villagers in health and sanitation.

She never knew how effective that program had been, and she left the country wishing she could have done more. A few years ago, after a long teaching career on the North Shore, she decided to try again.

She has since made several trips to Pakistan to do teacher training workshops. She has helped start a scholarship fund for girls and raised money for earthquake relief. She’s now trying to put together $10,000 to repair schools damaged by last summer’s devastating flood.

Even though Pakistan is viewed with suspicion and alarm by many Americans, she said, she is confident that her Peace Corps experience and recent travels showed the true heart of the country.

“They’re really good people,” she said. “There are (terrorist elements), but most Pakistanis want to live their lives just the way we do. I try to help people understand that.”

Joe Jaycox, 73 Venezuela, 1962-64

Growing up in a poor South Side neighborhood, Joe Jaycox treasured the days when the nuns of St. Ambrose School would treat him and other youngsters to a day at the Shedd Aquarium or the Field Museum.

He didn’t forget the importance of fun when he was assigned to a poor neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela. He spent 10 hours a day on a basketball court, teaching the game to children who streamed there from across the city. He talked bus owners into taking the kids to the beach; many of them, he said, had never before left the barrio.

It was a wonderfully happy time, which made it all the more difficult to leave.

“I almost cried, because my time was up, and I was going on to Europe and other places,” he said. “These kids, these young men, weren’t going anywhere. They were waving at me as I left. I was a Marine and a big tough guy, but I almost cried and said, ‘I’ve got to do something to help these kids.'”

Decades later, after a career as a furniture salesman, he got his chance. He struck up a friendship with Alfonso “Chico” Carrasquel, the White Sox shortstop and Venezuelan native, and together they planned a charitable organization to aid children in the South American nation.

Carrasquel died in 2005 before the group hit its stride, but since then, Jaycox said, the Chico Carrasquel Foundation has raised enough money to stage four trips a year, taking busloads of Caracas children to museums, swimming pools and even a McDonald’s. Humble as those destinations may be, many of the kids have never had the opportunity to go.

“I’ve always had good memories, good thoughts of the (Venezuelan) people,” he said. “That’s lasted for 50 years. … This happens to a lot of Peace Corps volunteers. They just fall in love with the people. So did I.”

jkeilman@tribune.com

6 Comments

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  • Beautiful, John! Thank you for sharing.
    Let’s hope more such articles appear all
    around the country in the coming months.
    — Bonnie (Gabon, 1996-98)

  • Nice article, my father brought this to me and I looked for it online and I found it here on your blog. I do hope others will realize the importance the Peace Corps has had on the US, Foreign Policy, and Development. After Peace Corps, I joined USAID as a personal services contractor and never looked back. Now 23 years later, with over half my life (and most of my entire adult life living overseas), I feel I am a living example of the famous quote from John Kennedy’s speech “..how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.”

    I know that my work has made a difference and I have my Peace Corps experience to thank for starting me on a life in development!

    John (Jamaica Group 47, 1988-91)

  • I went to a local celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the PC. Many ex-PCV were present, At the Q&A session, everyone talked about “a life changing experience” but quite frankly I think the the PC venture is a failure! It is a very good liberal thing that made the PCV “feel good” but in reality has it done anything? They talked about the poor farmer in his ox-cart having his cellphone ring and everyone laughed but (which tells me the world has moved ahead but they have not!) still after all of these years the people have no indoor plumbing, virtually no education, things were better under Communism, etc. The world is all messed up and in many ways it is worst today then it was 50 years ago. Are their any examples of a community really getting better or even one individual going on in his life to become a real contributer to his country? A waste of money? Just another foreign ad disaster?

  • Steve,

    You ask a good question and you are entitled to an answer. Ask the Peace Corps via their website at peacecorps.gov. The real answer should come from all the people in over 134 countries where Peace Corps Volunteers have worked over the last fifty years. Unfortunately, the agency has not always solicited that information. However, the first goal of the Peace Corps is to fill the request for trained people by interested countries. That means that PCVs have to be invited in by a host country. The Peace Corps is still being invited by countries and cannot currently fill all those requests. This suggests that countries find the Peace Corps Volunteers useful and the help appreciated.

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