Honoring the Life of Harris Wofford

Harris Wofford always had high expectations for young people.

He believed in their potential, he admired their passion, and he supported the institutions that gave them opportunities to make their mark.

For that reason, I hope you will support The Wofford Awards.

Youth Service America, where Harris served on the Board for two decades, is celebrating America’s Semiquincentennial in 2026 with a new campaign to double the percentage of young people volunteering, voting, leading, and participating in the public square. 2026 also happens to be Harris’ 100th birthday year.

With your help, we are determined to expand the opportunities for young people to make our communities cleaner, greener, safer, smarter, healthier, and stronger.

We recently did a prevalence study that shows youth participation in volunteering and voting hovers around 25%, meaning that we are leaving out three out of four young people. And they are missing the opportunity to practice the skills they need to be successful in school, work, and life: Critical Thinking; Creativity; Collaboration; Communications. And let’s not forget what business calls the “power skill” of the 21st century: Empathy.

Our goal is to engage 50% of American youth by America’s 250th birthday in 2026, which is also Harris’ 100th birthday.

Please make your gift to Youth Service America and our work to make service the common expectation and the common experience of all young people.

Many thanks for your consideration.


Steven A. Culbertson
President & CEO
Youth Service America

For those of you who did not know Harris, here is a brief summary of his amazing life. Harris (Peace Corps Staff 1961-66) was, as many of you know, the ‘key person’ with Shriver in creating the agency.

This is a brief (and partial) summary of what he achieved in his life.

In high school he was inspired by Clarence Streit’s plea for a world government and started the Student Federalists. By the time he was 18, the organization had grown so large that Newsweek predicted he would become President.

In World War II he served in the Air Force and in ’48 graduated from the University of Chicago.

After a fellowship in India, conducting a study of the recently assassinated Gandhi, he and Clare, his wife returned to America and he enrolled in Howard University Law School, the first white male student to do so. He finished his studies at Yale Law School where he received his law degree in ’54.

From 1957 top ’59, he was a legal assistant for Father Hesburgh on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. It was during this period that he became friends with Martin Luther King. Then in ’59 he took a position as law professor at the University of Notre Dame where Hesburgh was president.

His political career began in 1960 when Kennedy asked him to join his presidential campaign and work with Shriver on winning over the “Negro vote”.

When King was imprisoned shortly before the election, Wofford had Shriver get Kennedy to call King’s wife. This prompted King Sr to switch his endorsement from Nixon to Kennedy.

In 1961, Kennedy appointed him a Special Assistant for Civil Rights. It was also whenHarris worked with Shriver to create the Peace Corps. He would go to Ethiopia as the first director and was also the Peace Corps special representative in Africa. Later he was appointed Associate Director of the agency. It was during this period that he also participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. Harris’ book Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties details his civil rights involvement and the creation of the Peace Corps.

In 1966, he became president of the new SUNY Old Westbury and then in 1970, President of Bryn Mawr College. In 1987, he was appointed the state’s Secretary of Labor and Industry.

In 1991, when Pennsylvania’s Senator Heinz was killed in an aviation accident Governor Casey appointed Harris to the seat. Harris won a special election in ’91, becoming the first Democrat to represent Pennsylvania since 1969. Later Harris was a finalist for the vice presidential nomination but Clinton chose Al Gore.

Harris lost the 1994 Senate race to Rick Santorum by two points.

Harris then became head of AmeriCorps, and in 2005, he met Barack Obama and they became close friends. After that he was on a number of boards and in 2014, The New Republic featured him in its 100th Anniversary issue. The profile was titled, “The Man Who Was Everywhere”.

Harris wrote four books:
Of Kennedys and Kings
Embers of the world: Conversations with Scott Buchanan (editor)
India Afire (with Clare Wofford)
It’s Up to Us

Now tell your story–in Comments–about knowing Harris and what he did for you!



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  • I’m delighted to remember one moment with Harris Wofford that sticks in my memory. The incident had no special importance – except, perhaps, that it illustrated Harris’s humility and sense of humor.

    As a Peace Corps volunteer, I served in a remote desert town in Eritrea, near the border with Sudan.

    Harris was under no obligation, as Peace Corps director for all of Ethiopia, to visit our outpost. He came anyway, a few weeks after Emperor Haile Selassie declared that Eritrea would be a province of Ethiopia rather than a U.N. protectorate. Eritrea had been a semi-sovereign nation since 1941 when the Italians were defeated by British soldiers. Now, in 1962, Ethiopian soldiers posted their machine guns in the village square to “keep the peace.”

    The situation seemed a bit dicey to all the American visitors, so I suggested we might want to leave town for a hike up to the top of a nearby mountain. As we climbed over boulders, I heard a thump. I turned around, and could not see the head of our esteemed director.

    “What happened?” asked Bill Canby, our Associate Director who was also visiting Eritrea’s boondocks.

    “Oh, nothing,” I answered. “We just lost Harris, a friend of Sarge Shriver and director of our entire crew in Ethiopia.”

    “Not to mention,” added Harris when he recovered from his fall, “a friend of the Kennedy family, a counselor for Emperor Haile Selassie, and the plenipotentiary for Peace Corps volunteers everywhere in Africa.”

    His laughter, joined by all of us, broke the tension and reminded us that we were strangers in a remote place. Here, reputations did not matter, and lives were comparatively short. We might not be missed for days – if we were missed at all.

    I visited Harris over the decades during infrequent visits to the East coast. We talked about his career – as well as my much less illustrious one. He always smiled and remembered the details when I recalled my insensitive comment during our hike: “Don’t worry. It’s only Harris Wofford.”

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