Famous Peace Corps Staff Who Knew Me

I had a email recently from a friend complaining that my blog is “all about JFK !” and I wrote back, okay, I’d do more items on golf. She quickly replied, “Well, then maybe you should stay with the early days of the Peace Corps.”

There is a lot one can write about when it comes to the days  when the Peace Corps was attracting the best and the brightest. An early document of the agency said that the staff in D.C. and around the world was composed of “skiers, mountain climbers, big-game hunters, prizefighters, football players, polo players and enough Ph.D.’s [30] to staff a liberal arts college.” There were 18 attorneys, of whom only four continue to work strictly as attorneys in the General Counsel’s office, and the rest [including Sargent Shriver] did other jobs. Also, all of these employees were parents of some 272 children.

In terms of staff and PCVs, the ratio was quite small [then and now]. Figures from WWII show that 30 people were required to support every soldier in the front lines. After the war, peacetime ratio was one person in Washington to every four overseas. The Peace Corps was organized with the goal of ten Volunteers on the job for every administrative or clerical person in support, and that meant everyone, from clerks, typists [remember them?] to overseas staff.

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In those heavy days when HQ was located in the Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue, the agency worked on Saturdays, Sundays, and late into the evening. There is a famous photo that appeared in the Washington Post of the building all ablaze with lights as the staff worked far past closing time. It was that kind of spirit that made the Peace Corps special. Or as Kennedy said to the Peace Corps staff, “I do not think it is altogether fair to say that I handed Sarge a lemon from which he made lemonade, but I do think that he was handed and you [The Peace Corps staff] were handed one of the most sensitive and difficult assignments which any administrative group in Washington has been given almost in this century.”

Over the next several months, I’ll tell stories about some of these ‘characters’ [and many of them were characters] who made up the HQ Staff in the very early days. I’ll start with Douglas Kiker, who was the first chief of the division of pubic information for the Peace Corps, and who once asked me, “how in the world did you get into the Peace Corps, Coyne?”

I told him the truth. I said, “I applied.”

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  • I worked some years later for ACTION in the Miatico Bldg. I too was housed on the sixth floor, the same floor that Peace Corps had a suite of three offices. It was housed in one of the two wings that comprised the building. I still wonder if it was in my wing on the Connecticut Ave. side or on the west side of the building. overlooking the alley. What is truly significant is that these three rooms held all of the PC staff. Don Romine was one of the transfers, in his case a GS-7 from the NSA. He told me that he and two other staff did all of the preliminary selection of Peace Corps Trainees. They had a large table in the middle of the room where applications were piled as they arrived in the mail. Around the circumference of the room were labels for each country for which they were placing applicants. Each of them read an application and individually placed it in one of the country stacks. If there was any question about someone’s application, all three of them would read it and place it on a stack which they thought was appropriate. In 1962, Don would become an assistant director for the Ethiopia projects. He would return to PC and then ACTION when it was formed in 1971 and asorbed the Peace Corps. Don would rise to the position of Director of Planning in the Office of Policy, Planning Budget and Evaluation, where I subsequently worked. Dom was not subject to the “five-year rule because he had started prior to the executive order requiring staff to leave for at least five years before returning to the agency. He demonstrated the fallacy of forcing staff out given the absense of an intitutional memory that I observed when I worked there. Sadly, Don died shortly after retiring, having had enough of working with the Reagan appointees in the agency.

  • […] John Coyne added an interesting post on Famous Peace Corps Staff Who Knew MeHere’s a small excerptThere is a famous photo that appeared in the Washington Post of the building all ablaze with lights as the staff worked far past closing time. It was that kind of spirit that made the Peace Corps special. Or as Kennedy said to the Peace … […]

  • The 10 to 1 ratio makes sense if you compare the PC’s pay and the staff pay. That was probably the average. If you check the cost of a PC now, with the new budget passed, it’s $57,000 per PC per year. That’s probably the average PC staff pay.

    I don’t think PC knows what public information is now, but there is an officer collecting around $80,000. The NSA background is interesting. They hired a bunch of RPCVs 5 or ten years ago for their translating. Is this why the GS pay grades are reversed for PC?

  • The NSA connection is interesting, too. In John Perkins’ (RPCV Ecuador) he speaks of applying to NSA and then deciding to join the Peace Corps instead, but places a great deal of significance on that NSA contact. This is the first time I ever read about NSA people being involved with Peace Corps, particularly with applications.

  • “There is a famous photo that appeared in the Washington Post of the building all ablaze with lights as the staff worked far past closing time.”

    Not WaPo. That’s a Rowland Scherman snap that was used in yet another of our Public Information pamphlets from the 7th floor. Inside were portraits of the staff.

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