John writes —
If you ever had watched the TV show Mad Men you know all about the office atmosphere and the thick layer of smoke that filled the offices. It was no better in the Peace Corps during those early years of the 1960s. Flipping through pages of old Peace Corps publications, I see half a dozen people who I knew, all with cigarettes in their hands. Al Meisel in the Training Division; Charlie Peters, head of Evaluation; Jim Gibson, head of Agricultural Affairs. He liked cigars and smoked them in the building! The wonderful Jules Pagano. Other heavy smokers: Howard Greenberg in Management; Jack Vaughn, the second director; Frank Mankiewicz; evaluator Dick Elwell, (as I recall, everyone in evaluation smoked and drank and wrote great prose). Doug Kiker and his crew in Public Affairs knew how to light up. And so did Betty Harris.
When the Mad Men weren’t smoking, they were drinking. Warren Wiggins told me that during his years at the Peace Corps he was a three-martinis-at-lunch guy. I knew him best after his Peace Corps years when he had quit drinking altogether.
And, of course, besides the cigarettes and the booze, there were plenty of office affairs, trysts, and assignations, as well as some wonderful romances and marriages.
But what made those days fun for me were when the RPCVs came marching home. If you were a former PCV in ’63 and ’64, and could find 806 Connecticut Avenue, you were hired. The agency was desperate for ‘real life examples’ of Peace Corps Volunteers. It helped if you didn’t have any noticeable tics developed overseas, but really that didn’t matter either. A lot of us had tics.
There was this one early RPCV recruiter who when he was on campus and was asked that familiar questions all of have endured. “So, you were in the Peace Corps? What was it like?” would crumble at the asking. He would shake his head, lean forward, put his face in his hands, and begin to mumble.
Then there was the woman who had served, I believe, in Pakistan, and who wore her host country dress to work everyday for months after she returned to the U.S., as if she couldn’t let go of the experience, or wanted to prove that she was ‘the real thing,’ until Bill Moyers, then the Deputy Director,(who was only 27 or 28 himself) took her aside and had a friendly chat, saying that perhaps it was time for her to come all the way home.
But mostly, as fresh RPCVs, we were brash and arrogant, as well as, smart asses and thought we knew how to run the Peace Corps. It is a wonder we weren’t all sent on our merry way.
You could always tell the RPCVs in the building. They never waited for any elevator. They took the stairs two at a time. They came in early. They worked late. They drank beer from the bottle in an outside cafe around the corner from the office. They lived in studio and one bedroom apartments downtown in D.C. and walked to work; they were mostly single, mostly still suffering from reverse cultural shock, and they believed in the Peace Corps with a religious fervor.
And even to this day, ask any of us what was the best thing we ever did in life, or the best job we ever had, and we’ll all say the Peace Corps. It is rather amazing that one job, one building, one moment in time, could matter that much or linger with us over the years, but it does. And come to think of it, in those offices in that old Maiatico Building, we were all Mad Men and Women, and we had better stories to tell than what was put on television years later.
If there was one HQ staffer (who was young but not a PCV) who could have walk straight onto the set of Mad Men, is was Doug Kiker of Griffin, Georgia. Kiker was an original “mad man” in his brief time at the Peace Corps as chief of the division of public information.He would leave the Peace Corps in 1963 for the New York Herald Tribune, and on his first week on that job, he was riding in the press bus in the motorcade with JFK when the president was assassinated. By 1966, he was with NBC News as an on-air reporter and he would remain with that network for the rest of his life. He died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 61.
Kiker came from the south, from Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, majoring in English and wanting to be a writer.
His first short story was published in the Yale Review while he was still an undergraduate, and also while he was an undergraduate he worked as a reporter in Spartanburg, South Carolina, assigned for a good part of this time to covering the Senate race between Strom Thurmond and Olin Johnston.
As most of the ‘mad men’ of that time he has the uncanny ability to be right in the center of the action, shown by being on the bus in Dallas that fateful day.
He went from college into the Korean War, joining the Navy, and after Officer Candidate School was assigned as a gunnery officer aboard a carrier in the middle of the Korean War. Later he taught at Newport Officer Candidate School before his discharge as a Navy Lieutenant.
He worked next for the Atlanta Journal, and was there for the sit-ins at the lunch counters in North Carolina and covered much of the civil rights movement. He became somewhat of an expert on the subject, not only in the South, but across the country, and published a major article on desegregation for Look Magazine.
He was also writing fiction. In 1957, he published The Southerner, the story of a black educator who goes from North to South to participate in the struggle. The book was a success in the U.S. and overseas, and he followed that novel in 1959 with Stranger on the Shore, a novel about life in the peacetime Navy.
By 1961 he was living in Washington and writing for the Atlanta Journal, a weekly column that also appeared in other Cox newspapers, but he left that in early 1962 to join the new Peace Corps as the chief of Public Information.
The first director of Public Information was a guy named Ed Bayley. Bayley had had a decade-long career as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. He, too, had been in the Navy, but in WWII, and then returned to Wisconsin and worked as a reporter. Immediately before coming to the Peace Corps he was the executive assistant to Wisconsin’s Governor Gaylord Nelson. When he left the agency he took over the job as the information director of the new AID.
Public Information was key division in the agency in those days. They were ‘selling’ the Peace Corps to the public. Gerard T. Rice in his book, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps, writes that “The Peace Corps’ public relations exercises were slick, professional, and effective. Television cameras were invited into training camps; Volunteers appeared as guests on ‘What’s My Line’; celebrities’ visits to overseas programs made national headlines. The President’s association with the Peace Corps was particularly well publicized: meeting Volunteers in the Rose Garden as they left for overseas or congratulation them on their return.”
Bayley and then Kiker steered the good news into the press. It wasn’t hard. Most of the reporters who covered the Peace Corps in D.C. and elsewhere were sympathetic to the idea of the agency and anxious to help. As Kiker explained in 1962, “We are neither in the business of publicizing our mistakes nor of hiding them.” But as Kiker, and everyone else knew, if “enough goofs” became known in the press, the Peace Corps would soon be out of business.
Luckily most of our early ‘goofs’ didn’t become public!