Another RPCV Claims to be First!

Robert Potter with Judy Irola, who did that wonderful Niger ’66 film, recently did a short youtube piece on Jake Feldman who says he’s the first PCV. Jake was a Volunteer in then-called-Tanganyika back in ’61. He might indeed be the first Volunteer, but so many RPCVs claim that honor I’m losing count. Anyway, it is a nice piece, take a look, and for those who missed the background on this issue, here is a short blog (reprinted)  I wrote almost a year ago on the whole issue of  “who was first.” Check out the youtube item. Jake has a lot of good things to say about being in the Peace Corps, #1 or not.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUpx8MVdOuI&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Who Was The First Peace Corps Volunteer?

Posted by John Coyne on Sunday, April 18th 2010     

Lately there has been endless talk among RPCVs about who was the first PCV. Perhaps I’m partially to blame with my blogging about the early days of the Peace Corps. Or is it because we are reaching the milestone of the 50? Some RPCVs are drawing on faulty memories, old plane tickets, anecdotal incidents, typewritten letters from Shriver, and yellow copies of telegrams folded and unfolded over the last fifty years, to make their historical (if not hysterical) claim. “Yes, it was I! I was the first PCV!”

Well, let me take another tact. Let me suggest to you who really was the first Volunteer. We can end the guessing game, solve the mystery, and all go on and argue about something else.

As we said back in the Sixties: Here’s the skinny.

The Peace Corps began in a light drizzle at 2 a.m. in the early morning of October 14, 1960, on the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan. On the steps of the Student Union Kennedy made his famous challenge to this new generation of students, those of us who had survived the silence of the ’50s and the years of Eisenhower.

The crowd on Michigan’s campus had been gathering since the late evening as word spread Kennedy was coming to spend the night. The University even allowed co-eds to be out after midnight! (Another Peace Corps first!)

It was, according to Mildred Jeffrey, Kennedy’s Michigan coordinator, a serious crowd, and when Kennedy arrived and worked his way up the steps of the Student Union, he knew he had to say something. He began with a few comments, talked about it being late, and he needed to get some sleep. His remarks were off-putting and the crowd responded with muted giggles, hoots and a few disappointed moans.

Kennedy was instantly irritated at this dressing down and responded to this unexpected challenge by tightened his tone, raising his voice, and making this seemingly spontaneous challenged to the college kids.

“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?”

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives travelling around the world?”

Harris Wofford writes about what he believes prompted the off-the-cuff impromptu remark in his book, Of Kennedys and Kings:

The best guess anyone on the staff could give was that it was his immediate way of responding to the attack from Nixon earlier in the evening in their third television debate. The Republican candidate had said that he did not mean to suggest that the Democratic Party was a “war party,” but noted that no Republican had led the country into war in the past fifty years and “there were three Democratic Presidents who led us into war.”

Stung by Nixon’s words, Kennedy may have remembered the idea of a Peace Corps and spoken as he did in order to counteract the image of Democratic war party.

Al Guskin, in an article he wrote in the Fall 1991 issue of The Antiochian, recalled that “the birth of the Peace Corps owes much to the spirit of social justice embodied in the civil rights movement, the students’ stirrings for change on campuses throughout the nation, the innocence and incredible optimism of a new decade and the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa.”

Al should know. He was in the Michigan crowd that rainy night along with his wife, Judith, both of whom were graduate students at the University. With the help of a handful of others, they formed a group to show the world “that students would respond to Kennedy’s challenge of whether we were prepared to serve in the developing nations.”

Guskin would go onto write, “It is said by chroniclers of the Peace Corps that Kennedy was moved by the Michigan student response.  A short time later Kennedy gave a major campaign address on the Peace Corps, just one week before Election Day. He met privately with a group of us on the following day.”  Eleven months later Judith and Al entered the Peace Corps and served two and a half years in the first group to Thailand.

What Al glosses over in his Antiochian article is that between that October 14 early morning address and the Kennedy speech about a “peace corps” at the Cow Place, Al wrote letters and articles for the university’s Michigan Daily about the idea, organized on-campus meetings at dozens of other college campuses, and started to circulate a hand written petition, sent to both Kennedy and Nixon, to show the support by students for the idea. It was a petition I would sign at Western Michigan University later that month, signing also (among others) were fellow WMU classmates Bill Donohoe (Ethiopia 1962-64), Dick Joyce (Philippines 1962-64) and Lee Reno (Liberia 1963-65).

So, in many ways, Al and Judith Guskin are the  “first Peace Corps Volunteers.”  They made it happen for all of us. But really, were they the first?

When I was manager of the Peace Corps Recruitment Office in New York  back in the mid-nineties I often spoke to people interested, or just curious, about the agency. I’d say to them that the best Volunteers were people who had an itch about them; men and women who weren’t quite satisfied with whatever they were doing, and knew there was more to the world than where they were in life. They were the best PCVs, those individuals uneasy in their own skin.

I also told them not to join the Peace Corps if they were happy with the world, but to join if they got angry in the morning when they read or heard about a human tragedy that happened in some godforsaken country they had never heard of or couldn’t even find on a map! They were real Peace Corps Volunteer material.

I would tell them what Bill Moyers said in his closing remarks at the Peace Corps Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Memorial Service at Arlington Cemetery on Sunday morning, September 21, 1986. He said Shriver and the early staff knew from the beginning that the Peace Corps was not an agency, program, or mission. “But that it was,” Moyers said, “a way of being in the world.”

I also told applicants back in the days when I was a recruiter that the Peace Corps is filled with individuals who joined for a variety of reasons, many of which are contradictory, and that everyone who does join, woman or man, is solely and alone, the Peace Corps.

Yes, there is a large apparatus surrounding them, and some groups silly enough to go out and buy matching blue and white tee shirts stamped with the Peace Corps logo, but the truth is that every individual, singular and alone, is the Peace Corps. That person, wherever and whoever she or he is in the world, is the fully realized representation of what Kennedy first meant when he made that challenge on the steps of the University of Michigan Student Union. “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?”

No matter in whatever decade or year that you joined, or for whatever reason that caused you to volunteer, you are the Peace Corps in the eyes of the host country nationals. To them, you are everything the Peace Corps has ever been or ever will be.

So, who is the first Peace Corps Volunteer? I’d say, you are.

Congratulations

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  • Well, at a RPCV Peace Corps 50th Anniversary House Party Sunday here in Washington, a RPCV from the Philippines and one from Ghana got into an argument over who was the first group, who had the first volunteers. The issue seemed to revolve around who entered training first, who finished training first, who left for their country of service first. Nobody mentioned Tanganyika.

    And I just listened amused. In the end I have no idea who was first. But the food from the Philippines at the party was better than the food from Ghana — and both RPCVs were nice people.

  • Good story, John.

    Alan Guskin recently updated the story of Kennedy and genesis of the idea for the Peace Corps and provided some additional details:

    At first, nothing was done after the speech, but it must have been dwelling in the minds of those students. Four days later, Chester Bowles, who was Sen. Kennedy’s foreign policy advisor, spoke to a group of students on campus. They were expecting 50, but around 500 showed up. “He started talking about his son and daughter-in-law working in Nigeria,” Guskin said. This seemed to be when the spark ignited… hearing an example of that foreign service. “We (Guskin and his ex-wife Judy) organized a group on campus; it was electrifying.” Guskin said. “People came out of the woodwork, passing out petitions, students saying they were willing to serve.” Guskin went to a local restaurant and composed a letter to the editor on a napkin, calling university students to respond to the call to serve. He went to the student paper. The editor read the letter and said, “It’s good, I’ll print it.” The editor, by the way, was Tom Hayden, who would go on to found the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later served as a California state congressman and senator. One of the student’s mother was a campaign worker for Sen. Kennedy, and called campaign headquarters to let them know what was going on at the University of Michigan. A few weeks later, Kennedy met with the students in Toledo, Ohio. The meeting was somewhat private, Guskin said – just students and Kennedy, and just one publication, the university newspaper. “He wasn’t using it for political purposes,” Guskin said. “We met Kennedy and asked him if he was committed,” Kennedy’s response was, “Until Tuesday (election day) we worry about this country, after that – the world.”

    Read more at:

    http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4001394.html

    BTW, I didn’t know that Guskin went on to serve in Thailand 1, nor that he later was the President of Antioch College for twelve years.

    Best regards,

    Hugh Pickens

  • While I know Ghana I is often mentioned as being the first group, I had believed the Tanganyika group to have arrived in country first.

    At an RPCV Los Angeles event about five years ago, I met a man who was part of that first Tanganyika group. He told me that they were the “first PC group” as well. Also, he still had an ID card from Peace Corps with his volunteer number. Since his surname started with a letter at the top of the alphabet his number was very low. I cannot recall if he was PCV 001 or PCV 003, but he was one of the “first ones.”

    But sure, you can argue “who was first invited,” “who got the first application in,” “who postmarked the first application,” “who’s application was looked at first,” or take any number of approaches. I think the first group should be easy enough to discern, and then all members be allowed to claim the number one spot.

  • PCVs in Ghana would be the only ones that could claim this honor. Both Ghana and Columbia are the first two projects, according to Harry Hibaja, who served in the latter. He told me that if they had chosen to train in country as he voted, Columbia would have beat out Ghana, who did choose to train in country.

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