Memory and history are tricky. So tricky that it’s amazing that history gets anything right, even a matter as seemingly uncomplicated as a minor moment in Peace Corps history. In April this year nearly 30 RPCVs from the Ethiopia II training group that served in Ethiopia and Eritrea from 1963-1965 met in Florida to catch up with what was happening Ethiopia — and with each other. At one point someone recalled the visit that Norman Rockwell made to Ethiopia to do some sketches for a project he was preparing for Look magazine on President Kennedy’s legacy. “Right,” I blurted out, “Rockwell slept in my bed.” As everyone laughed, I explained that when Rockwell came to Debre Marcos, the town where I was teaching along with seven other PCVs, we made plans to turn over some of our rooms to the Rockwells. Debre Marcos, you’ll understand, was not renown for four star — or any star — hotels. Norman himself got my room and bed. Or so I have told the tale, always greatly embellished, for years.
But John Schafer (Ethiopia 1963-65) says that he can’t recall where the Rockwells stayed that night. Schafer, who was my house mate for two years, had more reason than most to remember the visit. His family and the Rockwells were personal friends for many years back in Vermont, and Rockwell came to Debre Marcos, in part, to sketch Schafer in situ. Indeed John’s likeness is among those of several PCVs in the Rockwell Peace Corps picture spread that ultimately appeared in Look in 1966.
Both John and I searched our old letters and dairies to shed more light on the Rockwell visit, but with little success.
Indeed even the date of the visit is in doubt. Many Rockwell profiles and histories list his visit to Peace Corps Ethiopia, as well as India and Colombia, as taking place in in 1966, the year the Rockwell stories ran in Look. But clearly that is wrong because all of us in Ethiopia II left Ethiopia in 1965. Additionally a picture I have of the Rockwell visit to Debre Marcos shows Rockwell and his wife with Ethiopia country director Harris Wofford and myself (holding a bundle of Rockwell sketches). Wofford, who left Ethiopia in 1964, recently told me that he remembered the visit, but couldn’t recall where he — or Rockwell — spent the night. Rockwell did some sketches of Marc Clausen (Ethiopia 1962-1964) in Dessie, Ethiopia. A picture of Clausen with an Ethiopia farmer in his field appears in the story. That was an odd anomaly since Clauson was an teacher, not an ag worker, but notes from Rockwell, now with the Rockwell museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, indicate that Rockwell was intrigued by what he called the “almost Biblical” quality of farming in Ethiopia.
What is, I believe, a copy of one of Rockwell’s Peace Corps pictures hangs in the outer office of the Peace Corps director in Washington. And those of us who remember Rockwell’s visit recall him as a generous, kind and very thoughtful person who cared very deeply about what Peace Corps was doing. In his quiet, unprepossessing way, he worked to memorialize what he considered one of JFK’s great legacies. So it doesn’t really matter where he slept in Debre Marcos.
(But you know in all fairness and honesty, I do think that Norman Rockwell did sleep in my bed! (Maybe.)
Barry Hildenbrand (Ethiopia 1963-65)