Peace Corps At Day One: #11

Shriver, it turns out, (at least according to Warren Wiggins) was not an easy man to work for. “I’m not the first to say that and I found that in the early days it was close to impossible working for Sarge,” Warren told me in our 1997 interview. “I failed to build a good relationship with him in that first period. It was so bad that I went to Jack Bell, who worked for C. Douglas Dillon (the number two man in the State Department), and asked Bell to get me out of the Peace Corps. I couldn’t take it. Bell won’t let me quit. He told me the Peace Corps was too important. Then I went to lunch with Franklin Williams. I didn’t know him very well, but I liked him. I told him the story, how Shriver won’t see me. He won’t pay any attention to me. And Franklin said, ‘Warren, you’ve got to learn how to handle Sarge. You march into Sarge’s office and you just shoot off your mouth about what ought to be done and Sarge is sitting there and he doesn’t know what to do with you.  What you need to is relax with Sarge. Give him time, give him options.’ Franklin told me to write notes to Sarge and stop trying to see him. ‘Send him little missives,’ Franklin said. ‘And then Sarge can talk to Eunice, call Haddad, call anyone. Don’t force him to react when you’re in front of him and charged up and you know all this shit and you’re telling him what to do. Don’t ask for an appointment again. Just send him notes.’

It sounded like good advice to Wiggins and he began to send Sarge notes written out in longhand. They would come back by the next day with an answer. “It looked beautiful,” Wiggins summed up.

Wiggins, as the point person in the agency, had other problems with other people. I asked him about Harris Wofford, who had been with Shriver before the Peace Corps, and was in the Mayflower Hotel when Wiggins and Josephson arrived with their Towering Task idea.

“He was an enormous help to me personally,” Wiggins recalled. “He sat me down once and said, ‘Warren, you’ve got to learn how to say Father Ted.'”

Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, was called ‘Father Ted’ by everyone and he was important to Shriver, important to the Peace Corps, and the Peace Corps was training its first Volunteers for Chile at Notre Dame. Wiggins was to go to South Bend and sign the agreement.

“Harris said to me, ‘We’re going to practice now.’ This is an absolutely true story. Wofford said, “Father Ted” and I said, “Father Ted.” ‘Say it again,’ said Wofford, ‘say it again.’ And this was repeated and repeated until it became natural.

“I was a person of limited experience with Catholic priests and I was going out to Notre Dame and negotiate with Hesburgh (excuse me, Father Ted). Wofford walked me through an education process, and I’m indebted to the men.”

When Wiggins looked back at the agency from the advantage point of  1997, and recalls those first days, he said, “We caught the tenor of the times. Or maybe the tenor of the times caught us. The Peace Corps epitomized the New Frontier, Kennedy, and the mood of the country following the Eisenhower years. The Peace Corps caught the wind that was blowing in the land.

“If you want to be effective now you have to damn well know what winds are blowing. You can’t just come up with good ideas or good organizations or a group of good people. You’ve got to understand the country and the winds that are blowing in the country. If you want to run a little revolution, you can’t do it just because you are bright or able or dedicated or grouped together, or did things in the past.”

I asked him then if we didn’t have a Peace Corps, could we start one today?

“I think the answer is that society would not. We only have a Peace Corps now because it is there.”

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