“And then Sarge said to me . . .”
Judy Guskin (Thailand 1961-64) can rightly claim to be the “mother of the Peace Corps.” In the fall of 1960 she was a young married graduate student studying comparative literature at the University of Michigan when, with her husband, Alan, she heard John F. Kennedy speak on the steps of the Student Union and introduce the concept of a peace corps.
Kennedy had arrived late at Ann Arbor that chilly October night and had not expected to speak, but a word-of-mouth rumor had spread around campus that he was spending the night at the University before campaigning in Michigan and over ten thousand students gathered around the Union building.
Leaving his car and walking up the Union steps, Kennedy paused to say a few words to the students. It was late and cold and the crowd was edgy, having waited for him all night. Now, after 2 a.m. in the morning everyone was tired.
Kennedy began by telling a few jokes that didn’t work and the crowd reacted with hoots and boos. Like most college-age kids, they wanted to be dealt with, so Kennedy did just that.
“How many of you are willing to spend ten years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the U.S. and working for freedom . . .?” Kennedy spontaneously asked them. “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” He continued this litany of challenges to future engineers and technicians, to teachers and students of international affairs. “How many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
On and on he went, telling them “. . . on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think, will depend the answer to whether we as a free society can complete.”
The crowd of students and faculty members listened silently and respectfully and then together in an unspoken, unrehearsed way, they began to respond.
First, they nodded in agreement; then they began to applause, and finally they cheered the young presidential candidate and his grand vision for all of their futures, for all of our futures to come. Kennedy had caught a nerve in the psyche of America’s young people and it began to respond.
In the days immediately after Kennedy’s talk, Judy and Alan Guskin formed a committee bravely entitled, “Americans Committed to World Responsibility.”
Then with several others graduate students, they composed an article for the Michigan Daily answering Kennedy’s challenge. It appeared on October 21 and within weeks there was a firestorm of petitions by students ready to volunteer to work in the Third World. From the Michigan campus these petitions circulated to campuses throughout the Midwest and onto colleges and universities back east, with much of the early organizing being done by the Guskins.
Two weeks after Kennedy delivered his challenge on the Michigan campus, Judy answered the phone in her married-student-apartment and was started to hear it was Kennedy’s campaign calling. JFK wanted to meet her and the other college organizers. On November 5, 1960, three days after Kennedy’s formal proposal of the Peace Corps in the famous Cow Palace Speech in San Francisco, Judy and Alan, and five carloads of other college kids, drove south from campus to meet Kennedy at the airport in Toledo, Ohio.
Judy handed Kennedy the petitions and messages they had collected from students across America. Kennedy joked with her, saying, “I guess you don’t really want me to have them, do you?”
He had realized this was her only copy of the thousands of signatures and addresses. Then he added, “Judy, until Tuesday [election day], we will worry about the nation, but after that, the world.”
And so it began . . .
Here is what Judy Guskin (Thailand 1961-63), has to add to her story of the Peace Corps, and her time with Sarge. First published on our site years ago.
“One of the highlights of my life was being asked to lay a wreath on John F. Kennedy’s grave during the celebration for the 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. I was chosen because I organized students on the University of Michigan campus in support of the idea when it was mentioned by then Senator Kennedy at Michigan during the final days of his presidential campaign. I remember at Arlington Cemetery looking at Sargent Shriver standing besides me as we watched John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame and thinking how much the Peace Corps owed Sarge for his enthusiasm, optimism, hard work, and political skill.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I sometimes disliked all the public relations material Sarge and Bill Moyers generated. This was a typical attitude among the first Volunteers. We were a very independent lot. Most of us were in our twenties and wanted to work quietly, perhaps because it was unclear what it meant to be a successful Volunteer. We felt our host country nationals should be the people who determined success. To us, Washington just meant people behind a desk who told us what to do, and we didn’t want long distance interference. Did they really know what we were doing in the field? If so, why did they give many of us such vague job assignments? We felt we had to re-shape our jobs and we liked that challenge.
I remember when Sarge came to visit us in Thailand. We were invited to speak informally to him. We all sat around on the floor talking to Sarge and a major journalist who had come along. “Too much PR” we told him. “Don’t oversell us please.” If anything, we wanted “true” stories to be told about the complexities we were facing. “Don’t brag so much about us,” we said. “Don’t oversell our achievements.”
Sarge said he was surprised at our attitude. “You’re too self-effacing. You don’t know the larger picture,” he said. He knew the Peace Corps needed positive publicity to get money from Congress.
He could have told us he had met with over 363 members of Congress and that positive local stories were necessary to get votes to keep the Peace Corps an independent agency. (In 1962 the Peace Corps legislation was supported in the House 317 to 70 and won by overwhelming voice vote in the Senate.)
He didn’t tell us that the publicity was needed in order to increase the number of Volunteers to meet the increasing number of requests. (In 1961 13,000 applied for jobs in 9 countries while in 1962 over 20,000 applied and requests for PCV’s had come in from 32 countries. During the early years each week 300 to 400 articles appeared in the national press, 98% of which were favorable.)
He wanted to motivate us to continue to do our work with greater optimism and energy, and a sense that we were part of a social movement that could make a difference. I’d heard that a sign in his office said: “There is no place in this club for good losers.” He made us feel that we were a part of a special club, and we couldn’t let him down.
After the visit, Sarge wrote a personal note to our parents. I still have the one he sent to mine. They kept it all these years. He said we were doing wonderful work. Sarge’s visit made us feel that he had faith that we, young, bright, idealistic though naive and inexperienced, would make a difference even though neither we nor Washington were really sure how to define “success” at that time.
Sarge helped capture the public imagination with his view of the Peace Corps as a new way to show the world the best ideals of our society — its humanity, caring, idealism, and willingness to work as partners with others.
It was important to look at not only what our work was, but also who we were and the spirit in which we tried to succeed. He knew from his own early experiences with the Experiment in International Living that we would bring home new perspectives on many countries in the world and on issues related to poverty and development. He strongly believed that we would be changed and would add to the “reservoir of compassion and understanding in America.”
While speaking at an RPCV conference, he spoke of how happy he was when returned Volunteers gave “Shriver Awards“ to former Volunteers who had continued humanitarian work. I sat next to his daughter Maria when he gave his speech. I saw tears in his eyes and hers as he spoke eloquently to a crowd who loved him.
Years later, when I was working for Sarge in the Office of Economic Opportunity to establish the VISTA program, Sarge asked me to come to his office to read a screenplay for a movie called “Volunteers” to star Tom Hanks and John Candy. It was a satire about the Peace Corps. It took place in Thailand.” As someone who was a Volunteer in Thailand, Judy,“ he said to me, “how do you feel about what they’ve done to the Peace Corps image? Doesn’t it make you very angry?”
When I finished reading the script, I told him that although it certainly didn’t present the truth about my Peace Corps experience in Thailand, it would probably be a funny film. “We’re part of the culture now,“ I said. “The Peace Corps will survive this movie.”
The Peace Corps survived not only the movie, but also the war in Vietnam and a war in Iraq. The ideals of the Peace Corps are needed now more than ever. Hopefully a leader will emerge who has vision and determination like Sarge and gets positive stories to our media before this generation becomes too materialistic, too discouraged, and too cynical to try to do anything that makes a difference.”
Dr. Judith Guskin has a strong background in Comparative Literature, Psychology, Anthropology, and Communications. Her interests have lead her to produce and write many documentary films, to help establish and administer programs such as the Peace Corps and Vista on a national level, and to work as a consultant to school personnel at the state and local level regarding the implementation of language and cultural programs for minority populations. She has taught at several institutions of higher education.
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I was in headquarters when the movie came out. Lorette Rupee was the Agency Director at the time. Her advisers recommended that she challenge the film’s depiction of the Peace Corps … without having seein the movie. As with many of Ms. Rupee’s decisions she decided to attend the Premiere and laughed at the satire! Another “crisis” avoided! 😉
Prior to that “chilly night at the Univ. of Michigan”, JFK came to the University of Illinois on or about November 1 or so. His car pulled up at the front steps of the Journalism Building, packed with students awaiting his arrival. As he got out of his car, a co-op went down the steps and presented him with a small floral bouquet, saying “welcome to the University of Illinois, Mr. Senator”, then swooned out into his arms. Later that same day, JFK spoke to the entire student body from a rostrum set up at the head of the Boardwalk, which encompassed all the major academic buildings of the University. As he was speaking, he turned his head to the left and a voice from a student on his right rang out: “prove it”. Without missing a beat, JFK turned his head to the right and pointing at the direction of the taunt, went down a list of six or seven issues to prove his point–to a gathering roar of approval from the entire student body gathered at the Boardwalk.
It was a moment to remember.