A 24-hour vigil at the U. S. Capital never happened before, or since. It was a day and night for America and for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers that should never be forgotten. I will over the next months publish a number of those addresses read by former Volunteers in the Rotunda of the U.S Capitol. All of these original essays I have and will give to the new NPCA museum in Washington, D.C. so that the history of the first generations of Volunteers will be kept, remembered, and understood by generations to come.
In these sad days of the Trump Administration, we can now look back and read back what Volunteers did for America and the Third World as we approach the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2021. It is especially important at a time when Peace Corps Volunteers have been pulled out of service, and we have a book such as The Death of Idealism written by Meghan Elizabeth Kallman, a woman who has little understanding of what the Peace Corps was and is, or how PCVs have served America then and now throughout the world. Nevertheless, in this day and age, her book sadly was published by one of the prestigious U.S. academic presses, Columbia University.
Read now what it was like in better days.
JOURNALS OF ‘THE PRACTICE OF PEACE’
By Colman McCarthy
November 26, 1988
About 7,000 Americans had served in the Peace Corps when Jack Kennedy was killed. Another 125,000 have returned from 94 countries since, all of them following Kennedy’s call when he first formally proposed the program on Nov. 2, 1960, in San Francisco: ”We have seen enough of warmongers. Let our great role be that of peacemakers.”
Some 480 former volunteers gathered in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Monday and Tuesday to remember Kennedy and their Peace Corps days. A microphone and lectern were set up, and volunteers, having paid their own ways to Washington, had three minutes each to read from their ”Journals of Peace.”
One of the organizers of the vigil, which lasted from noon Monday to noon Tuesday, was W. Dennis Grubb. He was part of the first contingent sent off in September 1961: ”Before going, we were in Washington at Peace Corps headquarters, across Lafayette Park from the White House. Sargent Shriver, the first director, rounded us up and said, ‘Let’s go see Jack.’ We walked across the park and went into the White House. Sarge said, ‘Wait here, I’ll go get him.’ A few minutes later, Kennedy came out and we filed into the Rose Garden. What I remember most from his remarks was the humor. He told us that if we had any complaints, don’t call me, call Sarge, he’s my brother-in-law.”
Not many complaints came in during the Shriver years, 1961-1966, nor under any directors since. In the Rotunda, a deep, cool well of history where Kennedy lay in state 25 years ago, the returned volunteers spent a slow, rich day as a living collective memorial to a president.
John Coyne, a New Yorker, was also sent off from the Rose Garden. After a few words of farewell, Coyne remembered, ”President Kennedy stepped down to shake hands and wish us well. And as he turned to leave, he stopped and asked us to write, to tell him how it was going. Then he grinned and added, ‘But no postcards!’ ”
That was in 1962. Coyne went to Ethiopia. ”Those of us who left the White House lawn,” Coyne said, ”and went into the Third World are older now than Jack Kennedy was on that summer afternoon. Time and tragedy have touched us all. But fate has an odd way of balancing the scales. The Peace Corps was not considered the bold new stroke of the New Frontier. Yet today on this anniversary, it is the Peace Corps that is the shining memory of those thousand days.
”Our service overseas was often silent and often went unheralded. Some of the bridges we built did not stand, a few of the schools where we taught are now closed, and many of the people we organized did not stay together. We were seldom as successful as we had hoped. But the Peace Corps took us out of America, cut us loose from these shores and taught us how to be citizens of the world. Because of the Peace Corps, all of us are forever changed.”
Another volunteer, Gaela Evans, served in Bangalore, India. ”A lifetime ago,” Evans, now living in Rancho Cordova, Calif., recalls, ”the thing I remember most from my entire Peace Corps experience is how it has shaped my life: once a volunteer, always a volunteer. Then as a Peace Corps volunteer, now a literacy tutor, Special Olympics volunteer, provider of food for the homeless. . . . Since then, despite neglect, the Peace Corps still survives. I remember the nickname that was given Peace Corps volunteers in the ’60s, a nickname that caused indignation because we knew it was intended to demean us. Now, recalling that nickname mists my eyes and puts a smile on my face. For so many children of the world, time has proven it was an honor to have been a ‘Kennedy Kid.’ ”
At St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Tuesday, the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, which sponsored the Rotunda readings, organized a liturgy of the Eucharist in memory of Kennedy. Paul Tsongas, a former U.S. senator and now a lawyer in Lowell, Mass., was there. He was in the first group that went overseas in 1961. A few years ago, he recalled that ”I ended up in a village in Ethiopia with five other volunteers, and I didn’t go anywhere on vacations, just stayed in the village. . . . I took the 10 best kids in the school, and I lived with them, just total immersion in their culture. And, you know, nothing I’ve ever done before or since has given me the same feeling.”
At the liturgy, Sargent Shriver read the swords-into-ploughshares passage from Isaiah, one of his favorite prophets. Had Shriver given the sermon, he might have repeated what he told a group of returned volunteers in 1981: ”Caring for others is the practice of peace. . . . Peace does not come through strength. Quite the opposite: strength comes through peace.. . . Thank God we still have the Corps of Peace — that body of human beings who know and have known that America’s destiny is not to be the policeman of the world, monarch of the world, Caesar, Imperator or Rex. But servant — servant of people, servant of peace. May you all grow young in the achievement of it.”