Jules Pagano was not a Mad Man, though he could have played one on the t.v. show. Yes, he smoked. (God, they all smoked! And drank! And screwed around, but that’s another story.) No, Jules was more of a character actor than a Leading Man at the early Peace Corps and spent his years there as Chief of the Division of Professional and Technical Affairs. (Yes, Virginia, they did have stupid titles like that back in the ’60s.)
Jules had a breezy, laid-back, amusing, and charming persona. He was like great poetry: there was more than one level of meaning to Jules. And like any good union organizer (which he had been) he held his cards close to his chest. If anyone could draw to an inside straight, it was Jules Pagano.
I knew Jules best for a short period in the spring of 1965 when he organized the unions segment for the first Conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers held at the State Department. I linked up with him as my father had spent nearly thirty years working as a first helper in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. This was my natural turf. And we were a natural fit.
I’m not sure how or why Jules got to the Peace Corps. He was always the ‘odd man’ out, it seems, sitting at the back of the room, in one of those chairs up against the wall, making funny, off-handed comments about the other Mad Men at the conference table. He kept all of us (RPCVs) in stitches the way he pierced the bloated egos of the Mad Men who clustered like dogs in heat around Shriver.
The thing about Jules was that he never attempted to impress us, not that the RPCVs were easily impressed, filled as we were with our own bloated self-importance for having been there, the first PCVs back from the Third World, Kennedy’s Original Kids. God, we, too, were insufferable.
Jules was amused by us all. He had been there, done that, before any of us had ever heard about the plight of the underdeveloped world.
Coming out of WWII, Jules was the first veteran to enroll in the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis. He waited tables in Annapolis and ran a mimeograph machine to keep alive, and finished college in 3 ½ years by going to school through the summer months.
It was at St. John’s College that he became interested in adult education and decided that he could follow his passion in the labor movement.
So he went to work in 1948 for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. While working in Virginia, he also got involved with the telephone workers and helped them organize into the Communications Workers of America.
Working in Richmond, he was the CWA’s education director, public relations director, research director and director of legislation. And as he said, he also directed people to the public bathrooms. All of this ‘directing’ got the attention of the national organization of CWA, and he was brought to D.C. to become the union’s first education director.
Jules believed in adult education, and the CWA was a natural for him. He established eleven training centers at universities throughout the nation and began sending local officials through training program, everyone from shop stewards to presidents.
By 1955, he was on a Fulbright grant to study problems of labor education in Britain and finished his year by writing a report for the Fulbright Committee on adult education in the UK. Next, he went to Central and South America for the CWA to develop international training program, bringing representatives from 16 Latin American countries to Washington and putting them through a three-month program.
It was then that he found the Peace Corps, or the Peace Corps found him, and he was “on board” as they use to say in the early days, by December, 1961.
The truth is I never knew exactly what Jules Pagano did at the Peace Corps. True, he was always around, slipping smoothly in and out of other people’s offices, always looking dapper, always with time to chat, time to tell another story. For whatever the incident or occasion, he always had a story that was a bank shot off an event that was about to happen.
He seemed to us RPCVs not to have any authority at all at the agency. He wasn’t one of those Mad Men pushing themselves forward to be at the front of the room, but whenever there was a chance meeting of Shriver and Jules in the hallways of the old Maiatico Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue, Shriver would stop his customary charging about to talk to Jules. Shriver, we could see, genuinely liked the guy.
Years later, when I ran into Pagano in Washington, D.C., long after our time in the Peace Corps, Jules was wearing in his lapel one of those small buttons Shriver gave to those of us who were in the Peace Corps during his five years at the agency.
Of all the organizations that Jules had worked with and devoted his life to, from the CWA to the AFL-CIO, from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to the Fulbright Scholars, it was Shriver’s pin from his Peace Corps years that he was wearing.
I was going to ask him why, but I didn’t have to; I knew why.