Mad Men Of The Peace Corps: Padraic Kennedy Goes To Washington

Pat Kennedy wasn’t a relative to the ‘other’ Kennedys, but he was never anxious to tell others that. It was nice in those balmy days of 1961 to ride the smooth carpet of the most famous name in America. Thought, in all honesty, Pat never ‘lived off’ the name. He made his own way to Washington, D.C. and the Peace Corps, he was a good guy who treated everyone fairly, and unlike many others, didn’t use his ‘connections’ to make his way in the agency.

Like most of those early staffers he had ‘family money’ and he was young, twenty-eight, married to Ellen Conroy a wonderful (and in my opinion, much smarter wife. Ellen who, by the way, was the sister of Frank Conroy, who wrote the wonderful Stop-Time, and was for years director of the Iowa Writer’s Program, but back to Pat.) Pat was a teaching fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (history) when he heard about JFK’s late-night challenge to the students at the University of Michigan. (You’ll be hearing a lot about that 2 a.m. event in Michigan in the months ahead.)

Pat Kennedy had a connect to JFK–a real connection–and that was Lemoyne Billings, a close (and strange friend) as we would come to know, of JFK. Pat had worked with Billings while campaigning for Kennedy in Wisconsin.

In December 1960, Pat and Ellen left the snows of Wisconsin to drive into the snows of Washington, D.C. It was a cross country drive that would change his life forever.

Some background on Padraic Kennedy. While he had an Irish name, he really was a wealthy WASP (not that I have anything against them) who was named after the Irish poet, Padraic Colum. (Pat did not write poetry, but Ellen was a real French scholar who translated African poets into English before that became vogue. She was a first class scholar in her own right. I was reading Ellen’s essays in the Kenyon Review before I ever heard of the Peace Corps!)

Pat had been in the Army in Europe (drafted, as we all were) and then studied at Columbia, and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. He was going to be a teacher. At Wisconsin he had earned his M.A. in American history, published a couple articles in historical journals about Senator Robert LaFollette and the foreign policy of the Progressives.

But all that academic stuff went out the window when he took over the job of directing Kennedy’s campaign headquarters in Madison. He says of that period, “my effectiveness was considerably enhance by my name. Everyone wondered which of the Kennedys I was.”

After the campaign he turned down the job of Exective Director of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. He wanted to be in Washington where the action was. And that’s where Lemoyne Billings comes into the story.

In her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story, Coates Redmon quotes Kennedy:
“Arriving in D.C. I made a date with Lem Billings to go hear George Shearing at the Embers, and I told him I was really interested in the Peace Corps. As luck would have it, Lem was going down to Palm Beach the next day to be with the president-elect. He scared me, though. He said he didn’t know for sure whether or not JFK had used the peace corps idea as campaign bait or whether he was interested in it seriously–whether it was actually going to be part of his administration. Then I thought to myself. ‘Now, don’t be ridiculous. The man proposed it in a major foreign policy speech. [Cow Palace] Surely he couldn’t renege on it.”

“I didn’t hear anything from Lem for about a month, and then one night back in Madison after grading blue books until 2:00 a.m., I fell asleep when the phone rang. It was so cold I almost didn’t get up, but you wonder about phone calls at that hour, so I got up and answered it. A woman said, ‘Mr. Kennedy? The White House is calling.’ In a second, there was Lem Billings on the phone saying cheerily, ‘Guess where I am.’

“I said, ‘Are you at the White House by any change?’

“I’m not only at the White House,’ said Billings. ‘I’m in the Lincoln bed. Are you still interested in the Peace Corps?’

“Damn right!’

‘Well, I’ve talked to Sarge Shriver and he’d like you to come to Washington for an interview immeditely. How soon can you get here?’

‘I said, ‘I’ll be there in twenty-four hours.'”

[Part One of Padraic Kennedy Goes To Washington]

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  • Leo–if you look at any worthy dictionary, such as Merrian Webster’s, you’ll see that the # 4 definition of “mad’ is…”carried away by enthusiasm or desire”; that the # 7 is ..”intensly excited”; # 8…”marked by intense and often chaotic activity.”

    All of these intense emotions were on ready display in the early days of the Peace Corps agency. Ask anyone who was working at HQ.

    I realized that you were over in Foggy Bottom at the State Department during this same period where most of the outward (and inward) behavior of the personnel was….how shall we say, ‘foggy.’ ???

  • John.
    You know that I was in the Peace Corps before joining State so am familiar with the early days of the Corps.

    Any word has its definitions as stated in a wealth of resources. But as any good writer knows, words also have their connotations. While “mad” can indeed express fervor and zeal, as well as lust, it carries the heavy burden of a perjorative connotation, i.e. mentally unbalanced. That burden is at present being reinforced by the latest version of “Alice in Wonderland” with its marvelous “Mad Rabbit” and “Mad Hatter.” I am sure the Corps staff in its early days were fervent, passionate, excited, intense and even lustful in building a bold new venture. But I do not believe they were unbalanced or foolish.

  • I met Pat Kennedy at the 30th anniversary of VISTA (Voluteers In Service to America) where he was introduced as its first director. He said that in his day VISTA was referred to as the “domestic Peace Corps;” a name now taken over by AmeriCorps. Shriver took a number of folks from Peace Corps over to the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity) when it was founded in March 1964. During preparations for the 40th anniversary of VISTA, Frank Mankoweitz, another one of Shriver’s people who over to OEO from the Peace Corps, was invited to attend, . He had been my wife’s PC director in Peru early on before his going over to OEO. Folks credited him with being the first VISTA director and I mentioned that Pat really was the first. When I subsequently spoke to Frank he said that it was common for him to be considered the first director of VISTA; however, he said that he was not. He said that his role had really been in saving the name VISTA when alternatives were being suggested a litte after its founding. In any case, Pat was well thought of by those early staffers working for VISTA during my time there. Thus, he was liked because he was an even handed boss as some, including Shriver, were less so. It is the difference in management style in figuring out how to make something happen by inclusion, rather than demanding that it happen, with less than optimal results. Frank seemed to have that same quality of management style that gets things done without rubbing staff the wrong way. I think that it had to do with their of empathy and an understanding that nothing really great happens unless it is a true collaboration of staff effort. I observed among subsequent directors that their less than realistic expections led to a lesser solutions to challanges. I recall that Isagonis, the inventor of the hydrolastic suspension on the first Austin Mini, said that “a camel is a horse put together by a task force,” inticating that it is a less than perfect process because of the compromises that are required to meet the individual demands of members in order to gain their support,;not unlike what we have seen so clearly in the development ot Health Care legislation.

  • I first got to know Pat first when we recruited together at his beloved Wisconsin at Madison in ’64 (that was actually the first use of the blitz recruiting technique). It was a great week, highlighted by Pat getting us invited to an informal party at the Governor’s Mansion. Since we hadn’t had dinner, someone picked up a bunch of hotdogs and set them on the front seat of the rental car. Not noticing, I jumped in and sat right on them, getting mustard smeared all over the rear of my blue serge suit pants. Upon arriving at the Mansion, I sheepishly entered last and whispered to the First Lady that I had a problem. She whisked me off to a hall powder room and cleaned off the mustard, then escorted me into the living room to join the party, whereupon she announced that we had been slightly delayed because I needed “my ass wiped.”

    Pat is a truly great person, and I am so glad you have included him here.

  • Ellen Kennedy was jewel of a poet.
    I helped her find an agent for her poetry about Africa [Don Cutler, Sterling Lord] and she got published..
    Padraic is a great guy and a good manager. He left Peace Corps to become the “mayor” of Colombia, the planned communith halfway between D.C. and Baltimore.
    I did some headhunting for Padraic back in the early days of TransCentury Corp.
    [John, this a great service, bringing back the glory boys and girls of the early Peace Corps. Why not a book?].

  • John-
    I was surprised to be referred to as a WASP. being descended from an Irish backsmith,having gone to 8 years with Dominican Nuns, 5 years with the Benedictine fathers and having two Catholic priest brothers. WASP indeed. At the same time, I am in total agreement with your observation that my wife, Ellen, has always been clearly the brighter one.I very much enjoy reading your accounts of the Peace Corps’ early days. They were magical indeed and definitely the best of my life! .

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