My Favorite Mad Man: Harris Wofford, Part Two

Harris and Sarge in Addis Ababa - Photo courtesy of Linda Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64)

Harris and Sarge in Addis Ababa - Photo courtesy of Linda Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64)

WOFFORD HAD COME TO THE NEW ADMINISTRATION as JFK’s Special Advisor on Civil Rights, but there were rumors he was pushing so hard on African-American issues that Kennedy wanted him out of the White House. There were also rumors Harris could have any ambassadorship he wanted in Africa, but Wofford wasn’t interested in a diplomatic role. My guess was that Harris was looking for an assignment that was a  zinger.

At that moment in Peace Corps History, Ethiopia was the zinger. This Empire post with the largest project of the agency. So in 1962 Wofford became the first CD to Ethiopia, and was named by Shriver to be the Peace Corps Representative to Africa.

In 1962 Harris and his wife Clare had three young children.

It was not an easy move in the early Sixties to move a family, especially to a new continent. Thinking back, fifty years ago, we as a nation knew very little about Africa. Beyond the handful of state department and Point Four employees, anthropologists, missionaries, big game hunters, and adventure travelers, very few Americans, except for Cross Roads Africa, had traveled or lived in Africa.

What most of us knew about the continent were Tarzan movies, scary newspaper headlines, (remember the Mau Mau Uprising?) and small news accounts of the emerging African leaders in colonial West and East Africa.

When I got invited to Peace Corps Training for Ethiopia in the winter of 1962, I had to go to the college library and see where the nation was located on an African map, and beyond Ethiopia’s connection with Mussolini and WWII, there was little to read but short encyclopedia entries on the ancient empire.

It was easy enough for us–new PCVs and mostly new college graduates–to pack a suitcase and footlocker and head overseas. Packing up a family and a household was another matter, and given Wofford’s duel duties in the White House and with Shriver, my guess was that Clare, Harris lovely wife, did the heavy lifting.

I’m not quite sure where or when we had our first  real exposure to Wofford as Peace Corps Trainees to Ethiopia. It might have been at the opening dinner and welcoming reception in the dining room on the Georgetown campus. He spoke then, and introduced a few of the staff who would be going with us. One staff member was Ed Corboy. At the dinner, Ed stood up at the introductions and seeing this guy with his premature white hair, I thought, well, if that old guy can go to Ethiopia, than so could I.

I might have seen Wofford on the walk the whole crowd of us took out the Georgetown Canal, a canal that Justice Douglas has recently saved from being turned into an expressway. This was on our first weekend in Washington. The long walk was a way, I guess, for us to ‘get to meet each other,’ a way to start getting ‘in shape’ for the mountains of Africa.

But what I remember most clearly is seeing Harris in a big old fashioned classroom of the college. Wofford, goodlooking, tanned and thin and tall, had his jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and he was pacing back and forth in front of us all, telling stories of his trip to Ethiopia, dropping names of famous people, talking about the challenges we  had to overcome, and spinning out one tale after another. He looked and acted like who he was, one of Kennedy’s best and brightest.

None of us were anyone, and all of us were from nowhere. Harris, of course, was having his meals in the White House mess, living in wealthy Chevy Chase, hanging out with Sarge at that mystical center of gravity, Peace Corps Headquarters. Shriver and Wofford were for all of us,  the pictogram of the agency.

In time, of course, the shine would come off Shriver, Wofford, the Peace Corps, and all of us as we worked our way through two years in Ethiopia, but at that moment in our young lives, fresh out of college, off on this historic quest, we could taste the excitement in the air. It might have been hot and unbearably humid that summer in D.C., but we only felt this fresh air of adventure blowing across our faces.

We were the bright hope for America. We were the living, breathing example of JFK’s New Frontier. We were the vanguard of what America would become in the years ahead. We were the hope. The promise. The answer.

Of course, we turned out to be none of those nouns, but wrapped up in our Peace Corps mythology, we were ready to fulfill whatever promise anyone else, including Shriver and Wofford, had made for us.

We were, when you think about, just more ‘mad men and mad women,’ slightly crazy, in love with ourselves and our adventure, chain smokers, drinkers, and more than a little horny.

End of Part Two

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  • Great picture of Sarge and Harris, eh!!!! You were that young once, Coyne…

    I joined the Peace Corps went to Colombia, smoked unfiltered black cigarettes called “Pielroja,” drank a lot and was horny because JFK /Shriver prohibited fraternization. I left the Peace Corps, my doctor said stop drinking or I would die so I did in the 80’s, I stopped smoking , as well, as it became anti social, but I still get horney!

  • At the time, it was rumored that he had been sacrificed because his views were too radical for the Vice President. But, then again look at what Johnston did for the Civil Rights movement!

    Harris was very unassuming, just a nice guy, always with a smile and willing to listen to any ideal, no matter how screwy. After Shriver’s visit to Ethiopia in the fall of ’62, he and Harris thought that it would be a good idea to have the volunteers put up street signs in the capitol city of Addis Ababa. Steel supply companies would be approached in the States for the donation of material and paint obtained. My roommates and I was asked to assist. However, we learned from the American living down the block and advising the Ethiopian Transporation MInistry, that the vast majority of streets were not named. In fact, the cities along the major routes in the country had only recently been named by the Wonji Sugar Factory by displaying the name in English and Amharic on a yellow field with a red elephant in the center, which was their way of selling sugar!

    What I do credit Harris, as well Schriver, with is getting Kennedy elected and probably by that act, saving western civilization as we know it. Harris had been contacted by Martin Luther King when he and Clare wrote about Ghandi and the non-violent movement in India, which they had studied in 1947 and wrote about. So, Harris knew Martin personally. Martin was arrested on a traffic violation in Atlanta, on what was suspected at the time to be a trumped up charge to get him jailed. Of the greatest concern to his wife was the they were going to transfer him to the Georgia State Prison because he could not, according to the Atlanta Police, be protected in their jail. However, Coretta, his wife believed that he would be killed when he got to the State Pen. Harris and Shriver went to Kennedy and convinced him to make a phone call to Mrs. King, which was immediately publisized, and spent the next three days mailing what had transpired out to every black leader they knew, about a million post cards, as I recall from Wofford’s Book, Of Kennedies and Kings. Kennedy won that election by about 10,000 votes. I have since learned that 1960 was the first election in which exit polls were taken. I have always wanted to mine that data to see how Blacks went for Kennedy, as I believe that it made the difference in getting him elected. Nixon groused after the election that he wished that he too had made a phone call to Coretta.

    Why this is all that important is that given the demeanor of President Kennedy, revealed in the White House tapes of the time, he was the only level-headed person among all of the hawks who wanted to bomb Cuba, always asking do we want to risk starting a nuclear war with Russia. Imagine if Nixon had been in the White House instead. Remember his argument with Kruschev at a model home in the Mid-West, where he debated the variations in the way they treated their people. I do not doubt for a moment that Nixon would have pushed the nuclear button and we would all likely not be here today.

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