Father Ted Hesburgh and the Peace Corps: A Story Not Often Told 

by Tom Scanlon (Chile 1961-63)

Across the street from the White House


Father Hesburgh was leaving his office at the Civil Rights Commission on March 1, 1961, walking through Lafayette Square across the street from the White House, when he encountered two friends – Harris Wofford, a former legislative assistant on the Commission, and Sargent Shriver, with whom he had a long-time friendship, and who was the brother-in-law of President Kennedy. Wofford and Shriver were ebullient. They held in their hand the text of a Presidential Executive Order that President Kennedy would sign that day, creating the United States Peace Corps. 

Returning to South Bend and the Notre Dame campus, Father Ted was working late in his office that same evening and received a call from Wofford and Shriver, still together and still “celebrating.” In the call they challenged him to “bring us a Peace Corps project.” 

Father assembled the Notre Dame Latin American faculty and staff, and they came up with an idea for a Peace Corps project in Chile with which Notre Dame had a longstanding presence.

Five weeks elapsed until Shriver called Father Ted and said, “It’s a go. We like the idea but can you make it less Catholic?” He asked this to avoid the impression of favoritism from the first Catholic elected president. 

Father then involved the Indiana Conference on Higher Education, which agreed to support the program with Notre Dame as the managing partner. Father traveled to Chile in April with Peter Frankel, an assistant to the president of Indiana University, and quickly obtained the support of the Chilean government for a Peace Corps program with the Institute of Rural Education, a Chilean non-profit. 

I had already decided to join the Peace Corps the day it was announced by President Kennedy, and I had been accepted to join the first Peace Corps group ever to begin service overseas, in Ghana, Africa, but I called Father Ted.

Tom Scanlon and Father Ted

Tom Scanlon (Chile 1961-63) graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame. He received a Master’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Toronto, which he attended as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow; and a Master’s in Public Law and Government from Columbia University, where he was a Ford Foundation Fellow in International Development.


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