My Favorite Mad Man: Harris Wofford, Part Five

Harris Wofford also dropped by our Training program at Georgetown University. Sometimes early in the day, before seven a.m., he would arrive with his oldest son, who was then about 10, and they would do the morning exercises with the ‘guys’ up on the playing field behind the college dorms. In the years since our Training days, that field became the site of the new Georgetown Hospital.

Wofford  would also come to Georgetown when we were having someone famous speaking to us. Chester Bowles, then the Secretary of State, addressed us, as did the former governor of Michigan, Soapy Williams, who was Kennedy’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. 

I remember Wofford best from small sessions we had with him late in the evening and sitting around a college conference table. For the life of me, I can’t recall how or why those sessions came about, nor why I was in them. Perhaps Harris was having many other small group meetings with the other Trainees, I’m not sure, but there was only a handful of  us at the seminar table discussing in that academic way ‘big questions’ of peace, prosperity, and what we would do in Africa.

In these Wofford’s seminars most of us had no idea of what we were talking about, but pulled up for discussion whatever we had learned that day in a lecture, or knew from a recent college course, or had read that week in TIME Magazine.

We were not deterred from giving our opinions, and Harris was a willing, waiting, and happy co-conspirator, listening to our opinions and following the question, in his Socratic way, where it led. He had in those days this great quizzical smile, seemingly amused at what we were saying as much he was intrigued. His eyes were bright and dancing in his head and he’d be leaning forward, anticipating what we might say, eager to be engaged himself, to respond. He always treated us as if we knew what we were talking about, which, of course, we didn’t. Not that that deterred us.   

 From the very first days of the agency, Wofford was tagged as the philosopher-king of the Peace Corps, a man with an inexhaustible source of ideas. Charlie Peters, who ran the Evaluation Office in the Sixties, said Harris had a hundred new ideas everyday and that ninety-nine of them were worthless, but the one good one, was a beauty.

It was Wofford who first began to talk of the Peace Corps as a ‘university-in-dispersion’. That idea didn’t go over well with everyone, even close friends of Harris. While they were comfortable claiming the Peace Corps was just about teaching in the developing world, or doing public health, malaria control, for example, Harris saw beyond the horizon. He always took the long view of development and human kind.

He was as eager to talk about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as he was to talk about Richard Daley and Chicago politics. That was the thing about Harris. He was the philosopher-king, yes, but he was also the Ward Healer and could get down-and-dirty with political realities as easily as he could quote Don Quixote of  La Mancha.

This duel-personality, so to speak, presented problems. There were stories told among us in Ethiopia where Harris would arrive up-country to visit Volunteers, ready to talk well into the night about some weighty issue or another, but having forgotten to bring the PCV mail.

One of the best descripton that I ever heard about Wofford, who would go onto become the Senator from Pennsylvania, was that he had made failings and faults, but none of them were human.

End of Part Five

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