Mike McCone, early Peace Corps CD, dies in California
Mike McCone, executive director of the California Historical Society during crucial years that were to determine its survival and later board chair at Heyday Books in Berkeley, died May 9 after a sudden onset of leukemia.
McCone’s death was confirmed by his companion of 20 years, Charlene Harvey. Mike was 83 and had been living in an assisted living facility in San Francisco.
Among the institutions for which he worked during his nonprofit management career, besides the historical society, were the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Grace Cathedral.
Mike McCone was one of those famous Mad Men of the early Peace Corps days, but unlike the Washington types, Mike cut his teeth in the agency overseas. He worked on the staff as a deputy in Sierra Leone, and then director in Malawi, Malaysia, Sarawak and back in Washington. He was with the Peace Corps from 1961 to 1967.
McCone graduated from Yale where he spent his summers as a choker setter on high load logging operations for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in Oregon. After college, he served in the Navy as a communications officer on a destroyer. In 1961, he left his job in San Francisco as a stevedore superintendent to join the Peace Corps. He had the kind of background, on paper, said Coates Redmon in her book, Come As You Are, “that made Shriver all shivery—the kind of chic-tough credentials that found him hitting the ‘buzz bomb’ button and barking, “Find this guy! Find McCone!”
McCone first posting was as deputy director in Sierra Leone, to which he relocated with his wife, Caroline (Nini) Charles, and their two infant boys, Andy and Mike. A third son, Matt, was born overseas. The Peace Corps Director in Sierra Leone at the time was Donovan McClure, who had taken over from the legendary Walter Carrington. McClure describes the twenty-eight-year-old deputy as “a tall, lanky guy with sandy hair, pale blue eyes, high-pitched laughter, a far-out sense of humor, an enormous capacity for work, and a fierce loyalty to the Peace Corps.”
From Sierra Leone McCone moved onto Malawi, then Borneo, for his final three years with the agency.
It was in Malawi, where he was Director that he confronted the American Ambassador in defense of his Volunteer, Paul Theroux, and hereby hangs a tale and tells us what kind of director and American Mike McCone really was.
(To be continued)
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Mike McCone seemed to be the ‘Golden Boy’ from California around Peace Corps Washington in the early days — young, good looking and bouncing with energy. As I recall, he was well connected to someone with close ties to Sarge Shriver — perhaps Nan McEvoy. Seemed to me he was from a prominent and well off California family.
I would love to hear from some of the former Malawi PCVs how he fared as County Director. In 1965, Mike offered me the job of Field Rep, and I was all set to go until Shriver vetoed the assignment because I wasn’t a former PCV. At the time, Shriver was adamant that all field staffers under the age of 30 had to be RPCVs. I heard that later, as the war in Viet Nam heated up, Mike supported his Volunteers’ right to publish a newsletter critical of the Administration, incurring the wrath not only of our Malawi ambassador at the time, but President Lyndon Johnson as well. Looking forward to seeing the second part of the Mike McCone story.
Does anyone know the date Mr McCone arrived in Malawi, or before Independence in 1964, the Nyasaland Protectorate ? JAT Ghana-3 Geology + Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment 1963, -64, -65
John, Mike arrived in Blantyre in August of 1965, after Independence. I’ll tell his Malawi story in the next blog, coming later this evening.
Thanks, john. I’ve communicated with two knowledgeable members of Nyasaland/Malawi-1, and they mention a Bob Poole who was the Country Director in the beginning, preceding Mike McCone. They don’t seem to have any personal recollection of Mr McCone. Apparently he wasn’t there long enough. They mention that their PC Doctor was a Tom Davis, but in early 1964 I remember an AfroAmerican doctor known as “Bernie”. They also advise that Paul Theroux was definitely not a member of Nyasaland/Malawi-1. There must have been a Nyasaland-3 Teacher project ? All of us have a recollection of the name Jim Blackwell, a part of the PC officialdom, but none of us can remember anything about him. Also, there was an older, married, anglo guy, a deputy country director, who had been a newspaperman in Seattle or Portland. There in 1964, Any info on who that was, and who this Jim Blackwell was ?
Reading what has been so far written about Mr McCone, who arrived a month after I had completed and left, I’m beginning to regret he didn’t last longer, as it sounds like he was very much what the moribund, unimaginative PC Malawi officialdom needed. On the opposite extreme, more about the Paul Theroux PCV newsletter, and Paul’s self-assured involvement in host country opposition politics, later. I remember it worried me even then.
Back in 1964 a more immediate problem with Malawi PC officialdom was the short-sighted ban on PCVs travelling to South Africa. Caused a lot of consternation amongst those PCVs, particularly noting that all of the Embassy people were routinely doing R&R in Durban, and the mines in South Africa, esp on the Witwatersrand were a major employer of native Malawians. PCVs were the only ones NOT knowing what was going on, and the PC Officialdom seemed determined to keep it that way. Or sheet naivete and foolishness about what mattered. JAT
Bob Poole went to Nyasaland from Ethiopia where he was an APCD. This would have been in late ’62 or early ’63. I was a PCV in Ethiopia at the time and I knew Poole. (Later he would be killed in an auto accident in Kenya. That would have been in the ’70s).
Nyasaland became independent from England in July 1964. McCone arrived there, he told me in late summer of 1965. I have written about why Theroux was kicked out of the country in an article I published in 1998 in my previous newsletter. It is a long and complex story, but interesting to those of us who follow such Peace Corps history.
Hi john, Perhaps, as written to you independently, we can find some PCVs who were there the brief time when Mike McCone was country director, for reminiscenses.
As I wrote, I had completed and departed a month or so before he arrived, and believe it was Bob Poole who still was the country director at the time. I remember being reprimanded when the BSA Police (then Malawi Police) conscientiously delivered the rifle I had purchased in Jo’burg, and sent to their custody until I had completed service — the plan being an impromptu hunting trip in Mocambique. I remember the police inspector, a British expat, like most were at the time, proud that his department had gotten everything right, and per directions delivered it to the PC office above the grocery store in Blantyre.
I remember an upset Mr Poole admonishing that I knew I wasn’t supposed to have a gun. I replied that I didn’t, and that HE had one, and I had taken steps to be sure the police had custody until I was no longer a PCV. With that settled, I was packing to leave, complete with rifle, when rebels involved in the civil war in Mocambique blew up the train to Beira, three days before I was scheduled to be on it.
it was clear from all this, that being a European, in African eyes indistinguishable from a Portogee Mahn (I have a story about that, for another time). it probably wasn’t wise to be wandering around the Mocambique bush with or without a rifle, so I boxed it up, gave up on my hunting trip, and sent it home. All duly approved by the Malawi Police. I remember the Inspector, shaking my hand, after approving the box, and asking what had become of my plans. It’s the way Malawi was back then.
I still have the rifle, a classical “Africa Pattern” piece, with double set triggers, folding leaf rear sight, and sling-swivel on the barrel ahead of the wood fore-end. Sports writers with Africa experience all beam seeing it. It sounds more like Ernest Hemingway than early Peace Corps, but I think all the little kids who followed me along the paths through the bush, on my geology investigations, looking for secret things, would be my staunchest defenders. We had some really great times, me and the children, and their village schoolmaster, and my Nyasa field crew. What memories ! JAT