How I Met Doug Kiker

Doug Kiker was from Griffin, Georgia and had early success as a short story writer while still a student at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, majoring in English. There’s a story about how he wanted to get published and he picked up Martha Foley’s short stories collection, went to the rear of the book and found the list of short-story publishers, closed his eyes and punched in the dark. He hit the Yale Review, to which he promptly submitted a short story. And they accepted his story.

While still in college he worked as a reporter, covering the Senate race between Strom Thurmond and Olin Johnston. After college he joined the navy and was commissioned an Ensign, serving in Korean War. Discharged, he returned to Atlanta and worked at the Atlanta Journal and covered the first sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina. Out of that experience came his 1957 novel, The Southerner, the story of a Negro educator who goes from North to South to participate in integration. The book was a success not only in the United States but in England and Germany. He published next the novel Strangers on the Shore, about life in the peacetime Navy in 1959.

In June of ’61 he became the Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal, and like many others, he got caught up in the excitement of the new Peace Corps. He left the Atlanta Journal less than two months after he arrived in Washington to handle Peace Corps publicity and liaison with newspapers and magazines. Like most of the early staff of the Peace Corps, he was young, only 32, when he took over the job. But he didn’t last long.

When I met him — in December of ’64 — he was already gone from the Peace Corps and was working for the New York Herald Tribune. He also had a television program on the new education channel in D.C. which was then being broadcast from a tiny studio on the campus of American University.

I had just gone to work (that September) for the Peace Corps as the African Liaison Officer in what was then called the Division of Volunteer Support. [A division that no longer exists.] The Press Office was looking for RPCVs to go on Kiker’s show and talk about Christmas in the Peace Corps. Three of us, as I recall, were drafted and we took a taxi from 806 Connecticut Avenue up to American University where the PBS studio was located in the basement of a campus building.

I had a college job working on a radio station and was familiar with the seat-of-the-pants production such at this one at AU. Kiker chatted briefly with us, mainly to get a ‘hook’ on where were we had been last Christmas. I told him about singing carols for Selassie and his eyes brightened.

When we went to the video tape, he screwed up his introduction and from high up in the booth he was told he only had one more tape [remember this was early PBS broadcasting] so he started over and went back to his scripted opening, then to the other RPCVs (if I recall Peggy Anderson ( Togo 1962-64) was one of us) and he worked around to me and said with great enthusiasm “Well, John, I bet you’re going to tell me that you sang for Haile Selassie!”

That caught me a little flat footed and I mumbled yes and began to talk and talk, filling more air than Doug might ever have wanted. When I saw his eyes flash, I summed up almost in mid-sentence. Both of us were clearly new to this television game. And Kiker—  to his credit — was no Chris Matthews.

Leaving the studio, he was still upset at my babbling, and asked in controlled southern rage, “how in the world did you get into the Peace Corps, Coyne?”

As I said, I thought about that for a second, then replied with true innocence, “I applied.”

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