Passing Of An Early Peace Corps Legend

There are Advance Men and there are Advance Men, and then there was Michael Sher. I heard late yesterday that Michael Sher had passed away in his sleep early Wednesday morning in New York City. It is so unlike Michael to just “pass away in his sleep” for this was a guy who did not, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “go gentle into that good night.”

Now this is a true story, told to me in D.C. when I first back from Ethiopia in the summer of ’64. It was told to me on a recruitment trip with Bob Gale, the director of recruitment for the Peace Corps. Sher had not been a PCV, but he was working for Gale, who had developed the famous blitz recruitment system in the Peace Corps in the early days of the agency. Sher had gone to work for Gale without a salary. He was a rich kid and he was taken by the Kennedy glamour of the Peace Corps, the politics, the excitement of Washington.

Over the years, Gale would tell (and retell) this story about Michael as a way, I think, of inspiring us all to be better recruiters for the Peace Corps. When you worked in Washington, D.C., after your Peace Corps tour, you recruited for the agency regardless of what your real job was at HQ.

Gale told me one night over drinks about his best recruiter, Mike Sher.  “Mike had a crisis mentality, because he was always in crisis. He was willing to do anything. Anything. And he proved that again and again.”

Gale and Shriver were in New York City at a recruitment event at  Columbia and Shriver was to speak, but then he had to make it to the airport and back to D.C.

Shriver, of course, had stirred up the crowd with his talk and the students wanted to shake his hand, make contact, touch the great man, and Sarge went off the stage and threw himself into the crowd and began to work the room.

Gale turned to Mike Sher and told him to get out to La Guardia and hold the plane. As Gale remembers, “Mike had a lot of imagination as well as New York chutzpah and if anyone could hold the plane for Sarge, Mike could. Still, there were limits to how long anyone could hold a plane.

“I finally dragged Sarge away from the crowd of  undergraduates and glanced at my watch and my stomach turned. We had twenty-five minutes to get to LaGuardia. It was a clear night, so there would be no reason the plane would be delayed. I had to count on some freak thing to delay the flight. I couldn’t see how Mike would manage this one. Well, we got to LaGuardia, raced to the gate of Eastern–in those days, you walked out on the tarmac to the plane–and by God, the plane was still there. Sarge and I were running toward it and I suddenly saw why the plane was on the ground. Mike Sher was lying down in front of it. Lying down on the tarmac with his arms wrapped around the wheel, holding the plane for R. Sargent Shriver. The kid was there for Shriver. The kid was always there for Shriver.”

The kid died yesterday in his sleep in New York City at the age of  71 after a year of illness. He couldn’t hold on any longer.

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  • An appropriate tribute, John

    Mike wanted to remembered as Shriver’s advanceman ( although he did stints with me for Ed Muskie (1968) and John Lindsey (1970). He was there when Sarge was Senator Eagleton’s (Missouri) replacement for McGovern’s VP in 1972 and I have been told he helped Sarge at Eunice’s funeral.

    Dennis Grubb
    PC Recruiting 1963

  • The “kid” was unbelieveable. And such a durable friend. With the world’s largest rolodex all in boxes he took everywhere. We were assigned by the Humphrey/Muskie Campaign’s legendary Hal Pachios to organize a Muskie statement against oil depletion allowances at the Denver University Law School. High rise, timed for the evening newscasts, auditorium on the ground floor, fence around the podium to keep press at distance to avoid questions. Normal advance stuff. But how to pack the place with an enthusiastic audience for the cameras? Michael said…”That’s our job and don’t show up tomorrow if we don’t do it”. So…we borrowed a key from a cooperative maintenance man, locked all but the main exit doors on the ground floor and pulled the fire alarm as classes changed on the hour. Perfect. Students streamed to ground level; filled the auditorium drawn by the TV cameras; and we had our perfect shot set up. Did we know? No, we were so scared we fled to Stapleton Airport (back then) and bolted home. Just another job pulled off by “the kid”. I’ll miss him.
    Tom Oliver

  • Because I was involved (20 hours a day it seems) with assisting Bob Gale make his Peace Corps Blitz Recruiting idea work, I spent a lot of time with Michael Sher. He had sort of a gadfly freedom to do what he wanted, but he was most attracted to the energy and excitement of what we were then doing at college campuses all over the country.

    I vividly remember one such event at Ohio State University. Michael, Wendy Grieder and I were the advance team for a major appearance by Sargent Shriver, which was to occur on Monday. We got to Columbus on Friday to discover a complete lack of cooperation by the OSU administration and absolutely no publicity in the major newspapers, which were very conservatiive. What to do? How to get out a crowd?

    Late on Saturday, largely Michael’s idea, we pieced together what we called “Smiling Sarge cards,” a 2×6 printed invitation with our favorite official photo of RSS bearing a huge smile. We fanned out and delivered the cards to every on-campus student and faculty mail box, so that would be the first thing over 80,000 Buckeyes would see Monday morning. Then, on Sunday morning with little else left to do, we fanned out again to distribute the invitations to all of the churches in the area (Michael had never been in so many Christian churches in his life!).

    When we went to the airport to meet RSS on Monday, we had no idea what to expect when we got back to campus. As we drove up to the front of the venue for the speech, there were huge crowds lining the walkway making their way into the building. Seeing our guy arrive, they surrounded him and nearly propelled him up the stairs and into the room, which was absolutely filled and overflowing into the hallways. Even the university president, Novice Fawcett, who had previously said he couldn’t attend because of a schedule conflict, fought his way through the crowd to be able to introduce the man who had come to take over his school by storm, albeit for only part of a day.

  • I wonder what we could do today that 50 years from now would make someone pine, with a belly laugh and a tear, for these days which will soon become yore.

  • Here’s another one. Michael and I moved over to O.E.O. during its early days. As usual, not having any particular job assignment, he easily got to be known throughout the agency and was always at the ready to solve any unique problem in his unique way.

    A newly formed community action agency on the north slope of Alaska wanted something special. To help create a sense of community, they had organized a little movie theater, which they argued wouldn’t be complete without a popcorn machine.

    Enter Michael. Within a week, a state-of-the-art commercial model was on its way, a gift of the manufacturer. But, there was something else. None of the rest of us would ever have thought that it would have to be onel that would function in sub-zero temperatures, of which there was only one model anywhere in the U.S. Micheal did, and he found it!

  • I remember Michael Sher with admiration for his smarts, enthusiasm and somewhat of a wacky sense of humor. We recruited together with Tom Gee at OSU and University of Scranton for the Peace Corps. He was unfailingly creative, hardworking and a good friend.

    May he rest in peace. See you on the other side, Michael.

    Wendy Grieder

  • This man never failed to call me on my birthday every year for the last 52 years–which is how as long as I knew him–begining in the OEO days in DC where we met. Except for those annual calls we lost touch with each others lives quite a few years ago.

    Yes, he was amazing and unusual. I remember being invited by him to meet his parents. He was an only child. This was in Manhattan. To my surprise the elevator was private & opened into their apt. His father was quite foreboding and a formal dinner was served. His mother was very kind.

    Michael’s personal life was always private–he was really quite shy–a lovely man and always a true gentleman. Very sad to learn that he was ill and that he died. He was kind of person who would always be there.

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