Marjorie Michaelmore Peace Corps Postcard, Part VI (Nigeria)

By now at Idlewild a half dozen more Peace Corps HQ people had arrived, all having been dispatched from D.C. These were some of the famous original staffers at the agency: Ruth Olson operated as crisis manager for the occasion. She was well versed for the job. She had come to the Peace Corps in the first week of the agency from years of working in the military during World War II; Betty Harris, a former journalist and political operative from Texas was on hand; Tom Matthews had just arrived back from Bermuda. And also arriving unannounced and unexpected, sneaking through the press of people, was Marjorie’s boyfriend from Boston, an  NAACP lawyer.

It was here that Marjorie received her handwritten note from JFK. I don’t know how that was arranged, my guess it was done by Bill Moyers, the rising start of the next Johnson administration, and at age 27, the Associate jfkDirector for Public Affairs for the Peace Corps. Moyers would go onto becoming Shriver’s deputy director.

When the press cleared out, Tom Mathews headed back to Washington to brief Shriver on what had happened. Tim Adams and the others got tickets for the next flight to Puerto Rico. This was the plan worked out in Washington.

There was, however, a new problem for the Peace Corps. Marjorie Michelmore didn’t want to go to the Peace Corps’ Outward Bound camp in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She had heard–via the Peace Corps Volunteer network that Camp Arecibo was “all Tarzan”– and that wasn’t her style. Tim was back on the phone to Shriver in D.C.

Welcome to the Peace Corps.

At Idlewild Tim Adams, Ruth Olson and Betty Harris convince Margorie to go to Puerto Rico. Michelmore agreed to go for a ‘few days’ and Tim informed Shriver, telling Sarge he would keep in touch. He boarded the plane with Ruth Olson and Marjorie, thinking that once he was on the plane to Puerto Rico, he’ll be okay.

Tim was wrong.

On the plane, Adams recognized Carl Mydans. It the time Mydans was a famous photojournalist, one of the giants for Life Magazine. Adams thinks: this is not a coincidence. With Mydans was a beautiful young woman reporter, Marjorie Byers. They are in first class. Of course, this is Life Magazine.

When they are airborne, Carl walks back from first class to talk to Tim who is riding in coach. [Of course, he works for the Peace Corps.] “Carl is such a gentleman,” Tim says, “I finally relented and we were able to negotiate terms under which Mydans and Marjorie Byers could get an interview with Michelmore after we all arrived in Puerto Rico.”

When they arrived in San Juan they are met by Rafael Sancho-Bonet, then the Peace Corps’ overall administrator in Puerto Rico [later he would be the CD in Chile.] Rafael drives them all to meet William Sloane Coffin, the director of the camp. Coffin is famous, especially in his own mind, and had been a chaplain at Yale, later an antiwar spokesman, later still, the senior rector at Riverside Church in New York City. In the Peace Corps Coffin was well liked, and well hated.

That day he was pissed that Michelmore had been “foisted on him” by Shriver. He did not want her in his camp. [Of course, Marjorie didn’t want to be there either.]

Coffin position was, “I want it made clear that this girl is going to be treated just like everybody else here. Up before dawn, rappel down the dam, do drown proofing, conquer the obstacle course, etcetera.”

Marjorie wasn’t going to have any of it. “I will do this for a couple days to accommodate the Peace Corps,” she tells all of them, “but I view it as an unnecessarily punitive action, and there is a limit. If I am not permitted to leave very, very soon, I will leave on my own.”

Marjorie telling her story at Peace Corps Training

Marjorie telling her story at Peace Corps Training

“Marjorie wasn’t kidding,” recalled Adams. “She was ladylike, but tough. And she just wasn’t going to take any shit from Coffin.”

Something had to be done, and it was, by Ruth Olson, Rafael Sancho-Bonet, and Tim Adams. They would handle this ‘incident’ for the Peace Corps. They got Michelmore, to use early Peace Corps terminology, ‘in, up, and out’ of Arecibo within two days.

Meanwhile back in Nigeria, another part of the “preposterous postcard incident” as Tim Adams termed it, was taking place. In Ibadan, between the PCVs and Nigerian students, there were real problems.

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