Barry Hillenbrand (Ethiopia 1963-65) Remembers: Norman Rockwell Slept Here (Maybe)

CD Harris Wofford, PCV Barry Hillenbrand, Mrs & Mr. Norman Rockwell

CD Harris Wofford, PCV Barry Hillenbrand, Mrs & Mr. Norman Rockwell

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)

How many PCV in this photo can you name?

How many PCVs in this photo can you name?

4 Comments

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  • Nice piece, Barry. I forwarded it to Laurie Moffitt, director of the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. She went to Ethiopia last year under State Department auspices for some kind of Rockwell-in-Ethiopia remembrance ceremony.

  • What a marvelous account. I shall see that it is added to the Museum archives to join the stories from John Shafer and others about Norman Rockwell’s time recording the Peace Corps. And I’m sure your memory is correct! Thanks for sharing.

    Best,

    Laurie Norton Moffatt

  • This is why there should be a Peace Corps Library and a Research Librarian to document and preserve all of this history. This is a wonderful story that captures the public romance with the Peace Corps of those long ago days.

    I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to find the Evaluation Report that Calvin Trillin would have written after his visit to Malawi. Jack Allison recounted that visit in “Alice, Let’s Go to Malawi: Calvin Trillin with the Peace Corps.” ( John Coyne Babbles: March 21, 2013.)

    There was an Evaluation Report for Malawi. (NARA College Park: Record Groups 490, Box 21 from record entry 13069 P-61.) The author was Nornan Farmer who visited Malawi in July of 1966. I think that Jack Ellison’s group arrived in September of 1966 and six months later would have put Trillin’s visit in 1967. The National Archives reported that there is no Malawi Evaluation Report for 1967.
    Sadly, the famous Charlie Peters Evaluation sagas ended with 1967.
    Peters left Peace Corps in 1968.

    Stanley Meisler In his book,”When the World Calls”, reported that Director Vaughn replaced Peters with Larry J. O’Brien and that “his first symbolic act was to cancel an evaluation trip by the N ew Yorker writer Calvin Trillin.” (page 57) Perhaps Trillin went anyway or perhaps this was another trip scheduled for Trillin.

    The Farmer report does have an important historic description of Paul Theroux and his writing career in Malawi.

  • Re “How many PCVs in this photo can you name?”;
    Would some one please tell me the names of the otherPCV’s in this important painting in addition to John Schafer? Were they all friends of John’s? How did Rockwell recruit them as models?
    Cordially,
    Jane Petrick

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