Norman Rockwell and the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, Part One

Back in 2009, I posted a blog on this site about Norman Rockwell and his connection to the Peace Corps and to the PCVs in Ethiopia, a visit that resulted in several famous illustrations by one of America’s most famous artist illustrators.

Since then, there has been several new books about Rockwell, including the massive (492 pages) 2013 American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and in paperback in 2014 by Picador. The book was written by Deborah Solomon the art critic of WNYC Radio and the author of two previous biographies of American artists.

In her book Solomon devotes one full paragraph to Rockwell’s January 1964 trip to Ethiopia but nevertheless manages to get several facts wrong. Earlier in the book, Solomon mentions that Rockwell’s contact with the new agency was through Harris Wofford, a founder of the Peace Corps and at the time, CD of the Ethiopia program, the largest one of the agency. Wofford had been encouraging Rockwell to do a painting of PCVs in tribute to the new Peace Corps agency.

But more importantly–for us–Solomon writes about Rockwell, The Saturday Evening Post, and how Rockwell’s trip to Ethiopia came about.  In June 1962 the family of Cyrus Curtis lost control of the magazine when corporate raiders took over and Norman Rockwell’s role as cover artist was over. He was assigned to produce portraits of politicians and statesmen. In May of 1963, Rockwell did his last cover for the Post, a portrait of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Solomon sums up, “He [Rockwell] was no longer making stand-alone illustrations. He was no longer a storyteller, but a ‘portraitist,’ as the Post announced, shoehorning him into an identity that did not fit.”

On the night of May 19, unable to sleep, Rockwell got up at 3:00 a.m. and jotted six pages of notes where he tried to make sense of his situation. In the notes he makes clear that he “longed to leave the Post,” and he was thinking, in particular, of doing a painting to honor the Peace Corps. “All of this debasement, depression, unsatisfaction,” he wrote. “Isn’t this the answer-If necessary, die doing something worthwhile. A worthy end…not humiliating fear and groveling. Have I got the sustaining courage to cut it though? Cut the knot myself not die groveling.”

Norman Rockwell had the courage.

In this after-midnight-notes, Rockwell mentions Harris Wofford, then the Peace Corps Country Director in Addis Ababa. Wofford had been encouraging him to consider doing a painting in tribute to the organization. Rockwell writes: “Isn’t a Peace Corps picture the answer? Youthful dedication. Something bigger than yourself. Maybe not art but my only answer.”

Rockwell had another reason to select Ethiopia as the locale for his painting. That was because of a PCV named John Schafer (Ethiopia 1963-65). John Schafer’s father, a Vermonter, was Rockwell’s financial adviser, and John was a PCV in Ethiopia. Rockwell would have a connection in Ethiopia (Wofford) and a subject, young John.

In late ’63 Rockwell and is wife, Molly, flew to Moscow to take part in a cultural exchange program sponsored by USIA, then being run by Edward R. Murrow. They stayed a month and then on January 20, 1964, left Moscow and on their way home, took a seven-thousand-mile detour to Africa and Ethiopia.

Arriving in Addis Ababa, Molly and Norman were met by Harris Wofford who took them immediately to a hospital to receive yellow fever shots, according to Deborah Solomon in her book. Being a PCV there at the time, I would have thought a more logical stop would have been at the Peace Corps Office, the old Point-Four building, where Dr. Ed Cross, our Peace Corps physician, would have given the couple their inoculation. (And then remark, as Doc Cross was fond of saying, “You know my wife had that.” But that’s another story.)

Next, Solomon writes: “From Addis Ababa they headed out to the bush, traveling in an old airplane with no roof.” Hello? There were no such open cockpit planes in Ethiopia. As a PCV, and as an APCD, I flew all over Ethiopia in DC-3s and in Cessnas 172s. The landing strip in Debre Markos at the time was a grassy strip complete with a boy with a stick who cleared cows and sheep from it before the regular Ethiopian Airlines DC-3 arrived a couple times a week.

The PCVs in town, of course, were waiting and welcoming of the Rockwells visit. Barry Hillerbrand, who would later go onto become a foreign correspondent for TIME Magazine recalls, “They stayed the night in Debre Markos and even slept in our hurriedly cleaned up rooms. (There was no suitable hotel in Markos.) The school had housing for teachers which consisted of three apartments with two bedrooms and a sitting room each. John Schafter and I had a bedroom in one unit. As I recall, and I think a letter I wrote at the time confirms, I vacated mine, and John did as well and we gave each over to the Rockwells.”

Rockwell, according to Barry, “was an extraordinarily gracious and gentle man who spoke about his art in an attractive self-deprecating way. ‘I’m just an illustrator,’ I recall his saying. He put on no airs, despite his being an amazingly famous person, and endured his stay in Markos-the outside toilets, the lack of running water, the rather basic food we had prepared for him and his wife-with great good cheer, despite his age (or what I thought of at the time as his advanced age). A nicer person you’d never want to meet. It was as if he stepped right out of a Normal Rockwell painting.”

John Schafer can easily recall how perhaps the most iconic Peace Corps painting–JFK’s Bold Legacy–came to be created. “In 1966 I was back home in Cambridge studying at Harvard for a Master’s degree.  Rockwell asked me to round up some ex-PCV’s and bring them Stockbridge to pose for the Look cover. Linda and Gary Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64) and another man, whose name I can’t recall now.”

Some of the people in the illustration were just models, but Gary and Linda, and the only African-American in the painting, Lonie Strong Davenport, were Ethiopian Peace Corps Volunteers, as was Marc Clausen, who would be featured in another famous illustration for Look. In this painting, Marc Clausen is on the lower right. Linda is next to him. John Schefer is on Linda’s right. Her husband, Gary, is beside Kennedy and  Lonie Strong Davenport is behind Gary. The illustration was entitled JFK’S Bold Legacy and appeared in Look Magazine in June of 1966. Also in this issue were illustrations that Rockwell had done of PCVs in Colombia in 1966. His illustrations of PCVs in India were based on a trip he took to India in 1962 to do an illustration of Nehru for the Saturday Evening Post.

Columbia  for the Peace Corps in March, 1966.  He never went to India.  He relied on existing PC photos, as well as photos he had taken when he went to India in 1962 to paint Nehru.

The group, as we can see, is looking hopefully into the dawn’s bright early morning light. A new day in America, or so we had hoped at the time when we were all young, and when we were all thought we could make a difference. Still, when Rockwell sent the painting to the Allen Hurlburt, the art director at Look Magazine, he wrote in his note to Hurlburt, “In this sordid world of power struggles, politics and national rivalries the Peace Corps seems to stand almost alone.”

True enough. It is a pleasure today to visit the Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and see hanging on the wall this famous Peace Corps illustration, see five faces I once knew in the highlands of  the Horn of Africa.


From the bottom up, Marc Clausen (Ethiopia 1962-64), Linda Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64),

John Schafer (Ethiopia 193-65). Next to JFK Gary Bergthold (Ethiopia 1962-64),

and behind him, Lonie Strong Davenport (Ethiopia 1962-64).

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  • Thanks John for this inspiring story. Rockwell’s art now has new meaning for me as well as appreciating another piece of the Peace Corps’s rich history.



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