One of the original Mad Men of the Peace Corps, Harris Wofford, is 87 today. Wofford was the first person Sarge Shriver called when President Kennedy asked Shriver to establish a “Peace Corps” in the days after JFK became president. A year later, Harris would leave the White House, where he was Special Assistant to the President on civil right, to become the first CD in Ethiopia, as well as, Shriver’s Peace Corps Representative in Africa. After two full years in Addis Ababa, Harris returned to Washington as the Associate Peace Corps Director. In the years before the Peace Corps, he was many things, including an early civil rights leader and advisor to Martin Luther King, all of which is describes in his book, Of Kennedy & Kings, that detailed his work with the Kennedys, the Peace Corps, and Dr. King.
After the Peace Corps, Harris would go onto be president of two colleges, and later the Senator from Pennsylvania. During the Clinton Administration he ran AmeriCorps.
And early supporter of President Obama, Harris, only weeks ago, was presented with the President Citizens Medal at the White House.
Wofford was known for his many creative ideas, especially in political campaigns. During the 1960 campaign he encouraged Shriver to speak to JFK after Martin Luther King was arrested in a demonstration in the south. Wofford suggested Kennedy call King’s wife as she was worried something might happen to her husband while he was in jail. Kennedy did make the telephone call from a hotel at O’Hara Airport in Chicago and many, including Teddy White in his book on that campaign, suggested it turned the African-American vote in favor of Kennedy.
Wofford also was the first to define the Peace Corps as a “University in Dispersion” which many RPCVs would agree with, given what we all learned overseas.
There are many famous comments about Harris that have been collected by friends and carried down, one decade into the next. Charlie Peters, at the Peace Corps, once remarked that Wofford had a 100 new ideas everyday and 99 of them were useless, but one was brilliant.
My own favorite comments is, “Harris has many failings, but none of them are human.”
Of course, Harris was also famous for going upcountry to visit PCVs so they might talk all night about changing the lives of Ethiopians and forget to bring the Volunteers their mail. But that’s another story.
Wofford and his lovely wife Clare brought their young family to Addis Ababa in the fall of 1962 and the first group of PCVs to Ethiopia remember Clare for always welcoming us into their home, and for caring for us in those early years of the agency. As Harris once remarked, “none of us knew what we were doing, but we did it well.”
Happy Birthday, Harris.
[P.S. Not familiar with Sen. Wofford’s life? Read more here or watch this White House video.]
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