Lee St. Lawrence might very well been the prototype of who Shriver had in mind when it came to picking his Peace Corps staff. First, Lee had a great name. Second, he had a great personal story. And, third, there were his dashing and dark and slightly romantic looks. I didn’t know Lee St. Lawrence in those first days of the agency, when he was one of the Mad Men of the Peace Corps, but I knew all about him.
Going into WW II as a teenager, St. Lawrence of Brockton, Mass, was sent into combat duty in Europe. He stayed overseas for 17 years after the fighting stopped.
St. Lawrence (even with that name!) wasn’t one of Shriver’s ‘rich kids.” He had worked his way through high school as a gandy dancer on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. He studied Greek and Latin at a Catholic Redemptorist Fathers junior college in Pennsylvania, then the war, and then he took his GI Bill money and went on his own to study overseas.
At Oxford, he kept himself alive by getting a job piling mail sacks in London’s Paddington Station. While studying in Ireland he worked at Dublin’s Trinity College ; in Paris he made money at the Institut de Science Politique.
Next he became a free lance writer. His first big story came after traveling for six months with gypsies in Spain. He turned it into a feature for a British newspaper. Then he spent six months living among contrabandists in Andorra for another feature story.
Tired of free lancing, he signed on as the first mate aboard a 120-ton Brixton trawler traveling around the Mediterranean. When his ship sank, and he swam to shore off the Italian coast, he decided he’d give up working for a living and took a government job as an interpretor for the European Defense Community. Assigned to international conferences in Paris, he was charged with offering simultaneous translations from French, German and Italian.
After that, he joined the foreign aid administration as program officer in Yugoslavia. Two years in Belgrade was followed by three years as program officer in Laos and then onto Southeast Asia. Living in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, he shared a house with the legendary Dr. Tom Dooley.
From Southeast Asia he went to the Congo after its independence. His job was to set up the first economic mission to the Congo. He traveled the nation from one end to the other in the course of which he was beaten up twice by mutinous Congolse soldiers and came close to being hung. He managed, however, to negotiate an economic program with Patrice Lumumba. For this, he received the International Cooperation Administrtion Meritorious Service Award when he finally came home.
Once home again, Lee decided to go back to college and enrolled in The Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, and it was there, while he was a grad student, that Shriver came calling and asked him to come work with the Peace Corps.
“I had to be convinced about the Peace Corps,” he said. “I had seen too many incompetent Americans abroad.” He added that he was “thorougly convinced, however, that the Peace Corps represented the most exciting concept in foreign affairs the U.S.A.l ever had.”
Within months of joining the Peace Corps he was back in Africa–to conclude successfully the first negotiations for the Peace Corps. This was in (then) Tanganyika, meeting with Julius Nyerere, who was the Prime Minister. In her book on the early agency Coates Redmon would write, “Althought St. Lawrence enjoyed projecting a devil-may-care image, he was as tough a man as ever held a job on the New Frontier.”
When he came back from Africa, at one of Shriver’s famous Senior Staff meetings, St. Lawrence described how he had gone ‘bushwacking across Tanganyika, from end to end, in order to see the exact conditions under which Volunteers would live and work. He told all of trudging through the high grass, seeing giraffes and Masai worriors, talking politics with the prime minister, and he used words like ‘schistosomiasis’ that no one knew anything about. The Senior Staff was stunned into silence. None of them had heard of “schistosomiastic’ and most of them had never heard of Tanganyika. And here was Lee St. Lawrence, the Peace Corps’ Indiana Jones, back from Africa, back from Tanganyika with tales to tell. Shriver, Coates writes, ‘turned phosphorescent’ as Lee St. Lawrence, the gandy dancer from Brockton, Mass., showed all the rich kids from Harvard and Yale, that this was how it was done in the new Peace Corps world.