While Doug Kiker might have a good claim to be ‘our’ first novelist at the Peace Corps, in my opinion, the finest writer was not all the hot-shots up on the 11th floor, in the Evaluation Division, or with the Public Information Office, but it was William W. Warner, Executive Secretary for Shriver. Warner was one of those quiet guys who didn’t draw much attention. But in 1977, years after his Peace Corps job, Warner won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his first book, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay, which was based on his experiences living and working among crab fishermen on the Chesapeake.
In many ways, he represented the sheer ‘talent’ that came to the agency in those first years. He had a first class mind, had vast experience, and a wealth of knowledge. Here in somewhat short-hand detail is Warner’s history and training when he began to work for the agency on March 30, 1961.
He had graduated from Princeton with a degree in geology and a membership in Sigma Xi, the Phi Beta Kappa of science. The war had started and he went into the Navy and was sent to the Pacific as a photo interpretation officer, first with Marine Air Group II for the Palau invasion and later with the carrier, USS San Jacinto, for the Okinawa and Japanese homeland action.
When the war ended, he went to Latin America on his own, went skiing in the southern Andes in Chile. He roamed around Patagonia. He worked for a season as a sheep hand on a ranch in Tierra del Fuego, beyond the Straits of Magellan.
When he came home in 1947, he joined with his brother and opened a small ski lodge at Stowe, Vt. He also took a semester of graduate classes at Columbia Teachers College, and returned to Vermont and taught at Morrisville high school.
After he got married in ’51, he went to Santiago, Chile, on a State Department grant to teach English and serve as Director of Courses at the Bi-National Center. Thirty month later, he was appointed Cultural Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. Two years later, he went to Costa Rica as the Public Affair Officer.
Next he took a year off to do reseach, going to the San Carlos Univesity in Guatemala where he studied the history of English settlement on the Caribbean coast of Central America and the Anglo-Spanish conflict there.
All of this work got him the job in 1960 as the chief of USIA’s Book Development Program in Washington. This program was concerned with encouraging both authors and publishers to undertake books of value to overseas information program.
Warner arrived at the Peace Corps on March 30, 1961, as an area program coordinator for Latin America. By May 21, 1962, he was named the Special Assistant to the Director in charge of the talent search for overseas staff. Two months later, he was named Executive Secretary of the Peace Corps.
This is the background of just one person who went to work for the Peace Corps in those first months and years. It is one example of the talented cluster of men and women who were in Washington when Kennedy was elected and wanted, with JFK, to make a difference. Many of them, including William W. Warner, found the answer at the Peace Corps.