Harris Wofford Receives Citizens Medal from President Obama

imagescahe8qde[John Gomperts is the former Director of AmeriCorps and is currently President and CEO of America’s Promise. This morning he sent out a message to his staff about Harris Wofford being bestowed with the Citizens Medal. John is a nice guy and he has allowed me to reprint part of his message for our Peace Corps Community.]

This is part of what John had to say to his staff about Harris. Also, he had a wonderful and  ‘typical’ Wofford tale to tell. It is a story that those of us who know Harris can certainly relate to:

John Gomperts:

“In a ceremony at the White House this morning, the President bestowed the Citizens Medal on my and our colleague, mentor, and friend Harris Wofford. I can’t think of a more deserving winner, and I am happy not only for Harris but for all the people and organizations he has influenced, including especially America’s Promise.

It is often, and justly said, that success has many fathers….At various points in the history of America’s Promise, Harris has stepped up to play a crucial role, including being Chair of the Board, and Co-Chair with Alma Powell.  He has never flagged from his initial enthusiasm, and his belief that America’s Promise has something unique and crucial to offer.  It is a belief that we all try to live up to every day.

Here is a quote from Harris in 1999 that still captures how we see our work at America’s Promise:

Great goals galvanize.  In World War II, our whole country pulled together to win the war.  Then in the Civic Rights movement, there was an alliance of forces that finally won the right to vote and ended public segregation.

Now what greater goal is there — morally and strategically – that at last to take all-out action to see that no young American lacks the five basic promises set forth at the Presidents’ Summit in Philadelphia?  In giving ourselves to this larger cause, we are finding ourselves.  In the Summit’s goals for children and youth, we are finding our most vital roles.

That is the serious side of Harris Wofford, the person who has made so many historic contributions ranging from his work with Dr. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, to serving in JFK’s White House, to helping Sargent Shriver start the Peace Corps, to serving as the first Peace Corps director in Africa, to being appointed and elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania, to being involved in the legislation that created AmeriCorps, to helping to start America’s Promise.  

There is also the wonderfully funny and humane Harris Wofford who is a friend to so many of us.  I will tell you a short story that captures the beginnings of my relationship with Harris over two decades ago, and shows a little of the zany side of Harris Wofford.  

51ndszfjnrl__sl500_aa300_In 1991, I was working at a public interest organization and was very interested in moving to a job on the Hill.  When Harris was appointed to the Senate in May 1991, a mutual friend made an introduction and said that we should be working together.  I was thrilled.  Harris’s chief of staff called and I quickly went up for an interview.  Love at first meeting; I was over the moon.  Are you kidding?  This guy worked with MLK and JFK, he helped to found the Peace Corps with Sargent Shriver, and then wrote Of Kennedys and Kings, one of the great books about the 1960s.  I was (and am) such a nerd enthusiast, that I had a first edition copy of Harris’ book that I had bought right when it was released.

So “put me in coach” — I was ready to go.  What did I get?  Nothing.  Silence.  Finally, Harris’s office called and offered me a job.  The wrong job.  Not the job I had interviewed for.  Hmmmm.  It killed me, but I said “no.”  It was the wrong job.  And, did I mention that my wife was pregnant, we were in the middle of a whole house renovation, and . . . Harris was five months out from an election and according to the latest poll he was a solid 47% behind!!!  As much as Harris Wofford was the coolest guy in the world, he didn’t look like the best bet in the world.  So I demurred.

Just five months later, Harris had made up that 47% and 10% more to swamp Attorney General Thornburgh in November 1991 and win the remainder of the Senate term.  Soon after the election, Harris called to ask me if I would reconsider and come to work with him as his legislative and policy director.  We agreed to meet right after the New Year.  When Monday January 3 rolled around, I had to call Harris’s office and say that I wouldn’t be coming in that morning after all – we were too busy having a baby!  So I went up to Philadelphia on the train two mornings later (perhaps the first sleep I had since Lily’s birth!), and I ended up having the strangest “interview” of my life.

I arrived at Harris’s house and he immediately said that he was busy and I should talk to his wife Clare for a while.  OK, that seemed like a nice idea.  As soon as I sat down, Clare said this:  “Harris said four things in this campaign, of course two of them were totally absurd and antithetical to what he believes.  What are you going to do about that!”  Not exactly small talk with the Senator’s spouse!  I really didn’t know what to say!  Thankfully, Harris soon burst in the room and to say we had to go.  The remainder of the “interview” consisted of a car ride into Philadelphia during which two things happened simultaneously:  Harris changed into a tuxedo, and we had a spirited and pretty loud argument about who each of us liked better in the 1992 Democratic primaries.  Let’s just say that Harris got the better of that argument.  And I got the job!

I worked for Harris for three happy and complicated years in the Senate before turning out the lights in his Senate office in January 1995.  Two years later Harris called and asked me to join him at the Corporation for National Service.  (By the way, Harris once again offered me the wrong job, but this time I knew him well enough to tell him so and get the right job!)  That was February 1997, and needless to say my first assignment when I arrived was to throw myself into the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, the same place I happily find myself now 16 years later.

It has been a great ride filled with history and humor for all of us who have had the good fortune to know Harris and to work in the organizations and causes he has touched.  We celebrate all of that today as President Obama bestows the Citizens Medal on our friend and leader Harris Wofford.

John Gomperts

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  • The interview morning in Philadelphia not only captures Harris at his most entertaining but also Claire at her sharpest. Thanks for sharing.

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