A Writer Writes
Harris Wofford: An Exceptionally Good Man
By Jerry Norris (Colombia 1963-65)
When reading Harris Wofford’s January 21 obituary in the Washington Post, it brought to mind a simple fact: it was through his office that I entered a glide path which led to my being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia. In January 1962, I had sent in an application but hadn’t heard back. Then, early that spring, having dinner one night with my family in Chicago, the telephone rang. My sister, Therese, rose to respond as she was closest. One minute later she came back into the kitchen, hands on her hips, saying in stark wonderment: it’s the White House that’s calling …and it’s for you!
Soon, I was in discussion with a young woman who identified herself as one of Harris Wofford’s staff members. (At that time, he was Special Assistant to JFK for Civil Rights and the Peace Corps.) She excitedly explained that Harris was recruiting a Volunteer contingent for Ethiopia, and that he would be its Country Director. I have no idea how this next question entered my mind, especially since this was the height of the JFK Administration and I was about to challenge an invitation from the White House! Still … I had the temerity to inquire: how many will be in the training program? She responded: there will be three hundred trainees assembling at Georgetown University before embarking to Ethiopia. I thanked her, saying that I wouldn’t be interested in being part of such a large contingent. She took no offense, rather she quickly responded: oh, but would you be interested in some other Peace Corps program. I answered: most certainly and we rang off. In December 1962, an invitation arrived to join a group to be trained for Cooperative Development Projects in Colombia. I soon became one of 23 Volunteers in this group as it initially underwent ‘Outward Bound Training’ in Puerto Rico.
After Colombia, I joined PC/W staff and had ample opportunities to see Harris Wofford in action. On a weekly basis, there would be an Open Forum for staff on subjects having to do with Peace Corps and its future. When Harris led one of these sessions, you could always depend on a full house—and they listened. He firmly believed that Peace Corps “must see beyond itself to the next steps America should take in world development and education. It must see and help to shape the context in which it will find its part”.
Like many RPCVs on PC/W staff, I only knew of Harris as a former PC Country Director. It was many years later that I became aware of his role in the 1960 election. As a young activist campaign staff member, he had encouraged JFK to call and comfort Coretta Scott King at a time when her husband, Martin Luther King Jr. was in prison. That gesture helped secure the African American votes for JFK in a very tight presidential election.
In 1962, Harris served as Peace Corps Special Representative to Africa, then as Country Director in Ethiopia, managing some 500 Volunteers. After returning, he became Associate Director of Peace Corps/Washington and Director of its Office of Planning, Evaluation and Research. He left Peace Corps in 1966, moving on to a professional career as a ‘man for all seasons’, serving first as President of the State University of New York at Old Westbury; as President of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania until 1978; as Chairman of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania; as Secretary of Labor and Industry in Pennsylvania; as U. S. Senator from Pennsylvania in 1991; as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Federal agency that ran AmeriCorps); he served on the Boards of America’s Promise, Youth Service America, and the Points of Light Foundation; as Trustee of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change; as national spokesman for Experience Wave, a national campaign that sought to advance state and federal policies to make it easier for mid-life and older adults to stay engaged in work and community life; a Board Member of Malaria No More, launched at the White House in 2006 with a goal of ending all deaths caused by malaria; and, from 2012 – 2015, he serve as a Senior Advisor to the Franklin Project, a policy program of the Aspen Institute that seeks to make a year of service a common opportunity and expectation for young Americans.
Harris was among the few enablers that gave early meaning and purpose to the idea of a national Peace Corps, most particularly at a time in its first 5 years when those in many tethered governmental institutions didn’t take it seriously. Yet, along with Sarge, they catapulted a tenuous concept that in 1961 had placed 120 Volunteers in three countries, to one in 1965 that had 10,000 Volunteers in 46 countries! These were the foundational years of Peace Corps. Harris then went on to help initiate VISTA, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps—each entity designed to encourage service to our country. If true that Sarge was the heart of Peace Corps, it follows that Harris Wofford was its soul.
Jerry Norris was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Colombia 1963-65) where he developed agricultural cooperatives in rural areas of the country. Upon returning to the U.S., he worked in PC/W in its Public Affairs Office, and as Acting Director for its Office of Private and International Organizations. He currently serves as the Director for Hudson Institute’s Center for Science in Public Policy in Washington, D. C.