Pat Kennedy, having studied at Columbia College and with an MA from the University of Wisconsin, was at the Peace Corps HQ from 1961 to August 64. He left the Peace Corps to became Deputy and then Director of VISTA from 1965-1970. He then became President of the Columbia Association until 1998. Today he is President of numerous Nonprofits in Columbia, Maryland.
He responded to my “Mad Men” series with this account of his early days at the Peace Corps. It is a long essay and incredibly interesting as it has a lot of ‘stories’ and details from the first years and how he was involved with the first PCVs going overseas and coming home again to the United States. JC Note
Pat Kennedy Remembers his Peace Corps Days
I’ve often tried to figure out what made the Peace Corps so exciting. It certainly had something to do with the atmosphere of the time. I was fascinated by the drama of Third World countries bursting onto the international scene. So many countries were fighting for and achieving independence in the late 1950s. Every day the newspapers were filled with stories about Indonesia, the Bandung Conference, Algeria, Kenya, the Congo, Ghana, and Guinea…. Names of Third World leaders were becoming increasingly familiar – Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Ben Bella, Sukarno….
The Soviet threat and upheavals like the Algerian and Cuban revolutions caused concern, not to mention Vice President Nixon’s disastrous trip to Venezuela where he was spat upon. And all of us were reading that new book, The Ugly American.
Jack Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign highlighted the need for bold, new leadership. In speeches proposing the creation of a Peace Corps, he stressed the importance of getting involved in the great events of the day. After his Inauguration, it was impossible not to respond to President Kennedy’s clarion call, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” So I left the University and joined the Peace Corps.
I started working at the Peace Corps on its first day when there were only ten people on the staff. My first assignment was answering the thousands of letters pouring in every day. The Peace Corps was clearly an extremely popular program – and it didn’t even exist.
At the end of that first day, Sargent Shriver asked me to join him for dinner at Paul Young’s restaurant with Ed Bailey and Jack Young. Over dinner, Shriver described how he thought the Peace Corps might be organized. He pulled out a pen and proceeded to draw an illustrative organization chart on the tablecloth. I was horrified and fully expected the maître de would order us to leave. Instead. he and the waiters just stood there beaming, proud that the President’s brother-in-law was actually drawing on their tablecloth.
Those early Peace Corps years were incredibly exciting. We worked late into the night. We didn’t have the necessary office supplies at the time, so we went ‘midnight requisitioning’ in the AID offices upstairs That’s how we got our first scrap baskets, stationary and other supplies.
After some weeks had passed, Shriver asked me to organize training programs for the first Peace Corps Volunteers. The first one was for volunteers slated to teach secondary school in towns and bush areas all over Ghana. There was one problem. In 1961, there weren’t any institutions in America that had the experience, staff –or for that matter, the philosophical orientation to prepare volunteers for service in Ghana. There were only two African Studies programs in the entire country. The State Department didn’t even have a Bureau of African Affairs.
I managed to find the names of five leading experts on Ghana and invited them to come to Washington to help me design the Peace Corps’ very first training program. (It didn’t hurt that when I telephoned them and said “This is Pat Kennedy calling from Washington” they naturally assumed I was related,)
They were an extraordinary group, those five. They represented different disciplines and came from different universities. There was Bob Lystad of Johns Hopkins, an anthropologist who had lived with the Ashanti. Gray Cowan, a political scientist from Columbia University. St. Clair Drake, a black sociologist from Roosevelt University, who had taught at the University of Ghana and knew Kwame Nkrumah personally. Dave Cowens, who probably knew more than anyone about the educational system in the English-speaking tribes of Africa. And finally, there was Dave Apter, author of The Gold Coast in Transition, a brilliant political scientist from the University of California in Berkeley. They were enthusiastic, knowledgeable, interested in the Peace Corps’ mission, and determined that Washington not screw it up.
The training program was located in Berkeley where David Apter was on the faculty. For eight weeks the Volunteers were immersed in Ghana’s history, culture, economy, education system and political sensitivities. They also learned rudimentary Twi. When the 8-week training program ended in August, the Volunteers threw a party for their teachers and gave each of them a cigarette lighter with the inscription “Here Today- Ghana Tomorrow”. Then they flew to Washington for a reception at the Ghanaian Embassy and a meeting in the Rose Garden with President Kennedy.
Finally, on August 28, 1961, that group of 50 Volunteers flew from National Airport to Accra in a chartered DC-7 prop plane. I accompanied the Volunteers and I can tell you we were all so excited nobody slept a wink on that 21-hour flight.
Some of the Volunteers rehearsed a short speech in Twi to deliver at the airport. Others rehearsed the Ghanaian national anthem, which they had learned during training.
Landing in Accra on September 1st, we were met by the Minister of Education, Ambassador Russell, and an assortment of local Chiefs. The Volunteers sang the Ghanaian national anthem and a Volunteer named Ken Baer, speaking in Twi, announced on Radio Ghana “We have come to learn as well as to teach.” The Volunteers were an immediate hit and the Peace Corps was on its way.
I stayed in Ghana for a month helping Volunteers get settled into schools from Cape Coast to Tema and from Kumasi, to Navrango. When I got back to Washington, I gave the very first report at Sargent Shriver’s Senior Staff meeting about Peace Corps Volunteers in the field. As a result, I became considered something of an Authority on Peace Corps Volunteers and before long Shriver appointed me the Peace Corps’ Director of Volunteer Support.
DVS was one of the largest divisions in the Peace Corps. It was responsible for everything from orienting trainees about the Peace Corps’ philosophy, providing logistical support such as travel arrangements, selecting escort officers to accompany Volunteers overseas, orchestrating completion of service conferences and providing career assistance for Volunteers when they returned home.
A couple of months after returning from Ghana, I escorted another group of Volunteers overseas, this time to Nigeria. We landed in Lagos, stayed briefly at the University of Ibadan, and then went by bus to the Volunteers’ assignments in eastern Nigeria. The following year, I escorted a group of Peace Corps secondary school teachers to Ethiopia. The contingent, numbering 275 Volunteers, was so large it doubled the number of Ethiopia’s secondary school teachers who were college graduates. Flying to Addis Ababa, we laid over in Athens for one night. We had made reservations for the group at a hotel, but the hotel was a couple of rooms short. So two of us decided to spend the night up on the Acropolis. It wasn’t fenced off in those days and we got to sit on the steps of the Parthenon until daybreak when the sun rose over the city. It was a magical, spiritual experience.
Later in the morning we reboarded our planes and arrived in Addis Ababa that afternoon. We were met there by
Harris Wofford, the Peace Corps’ country director. He took the Volunteers to their orientation site, and I went to check in at the hotel. It was very fancy indeed. My room, replete with chandelier, was so large I couldn’t believe it. While I was unpacking. the hotel manager rang my room and invited me down to sign the hotel’s guest book. I couldn’t help noticing that the names of previous visitors who had signed the handsome leather bound book were all heads of state. They apparently thought I must be one of those Kennedys, which explained the sumptuous room. The next day so as not to disabuse them, I quietly checked out of the hotel and moved in with the Woffords.
Other than standing just feet from Emperor Haile Selassie at the Pascal Ceremony, the most memorable thing about the time I spent in Ethiopia was driving alone in a Land Rover to schools all over the country ensuring that they
were prepared for their Volunteer’s arrival. I drove to Debra Birhan, Debra Marcos, across the Blue Nile, to Dire Dawa and Harer and back again to Addis. I was thoroughly enjoying Ethiopia. Back home, however, Ellen, who was six months pregnant, was growing restless. She sent one telegram that read’ “Pad, poor Pad. The Peace Corps’ keeping you in Addis and I’m feeling so sad.” When I neglected to reply, she sent another, more cryptic, telegram. All it said was, “Your silence not golden.” This time I responded and after a fascinating month in Ethiopia, I returned to the States.
From the beginning, Shriver was determined that the Peace Corps should not be used as an instrument of American foreign policy. In 1962, however, I brushed ever so slightly into the foreign policy arena. Ellen and I were living on 34th street in Georgetown at the time and one night Lem Billings came for dinner. We were having a jolly time when the White House telephoned asking for Mr. Lem Billings. When Lem got on the phone President Kennedy got on the line. The President and his key advisers were huddled in the War Room dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous incident in the nuclear age. The President asked Lem to come to the White House, obviously wanting his friend to provide periodic relief from an incredibly intense situation.
Lem and I left immediately in my old Volkswagen beetle. Unfortunately, the car had a damaged muffler and, small though the car was, it roared like a Sherman tank all the way down M street and Pennsylvania Avenue. At the White House gate, the security guard recognized Lem and waved us on in. I roared up to the Portico, Lem got out, and turning the car around, I drove noisily out through the White House gates and back home. Unnoticed and unheralded though it remains to this day, that was my contribution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sometime in late 1962, the Peace Corps began focusing on the fact that the first Volunteers would soon be completing their service. I was given the task of setting up a Career Information Service that would assist them when they returned and capitalize on the experience they had gained during their service abroad.
Needing advice and financial assistance, I turned to Thomas Watson Jr., the President of IBM who was a member of the Peace Corps Advisory Council. I telephoned his office in Armonk, N.Y and arranged an appointment. On the designated day I took the Eastern Airlines Shuttle to LaGuardia Airport where I was met by an IBM driver and whisked to IBM’s headquarters in Armonk.
Mr. Watson was most welcoming. Over lunch in his private dining room, I outlined the importance of the Peace Corps having a career assistance program for returning Volunteers. When I asked him for a grant to tide us over until Congress authorized such an undertaking, Mr. Watson said he would do something even better. He said he would dispatch one of IBM’s top personnel executives to work with me for several months designing a program. The result was Paul Stroem soon arrived at the Maiatico Building.
Since the Peace Corps still didn’t have funds for a career assistance undertaking, I approached the Carnegie Corporation in New York to seek a grant. Carnegie had a deep interest in improving area studies programs at American universities and immediately saw the potential impact returning Volunteers could have. The upshot was the Carnegie Corporation approved a grant of around $100,000 to begin the program.
The next task was identifying someone to run the Career Information Service. Dr. Robert Calvert, the Placement Director at the University of California at Berkeley, clearly was the man. He joined my staff in Washington and organized an impressive operation. Together we persuaded universities to establish Peace Corps scholarships, got the Ford Foundation to establish 50 additional Study Fellowships, opened the doors for returning Volunteers in government agencies such as AID, and the Peace Corps. The Career Information Service developed opportunities in a broad range of fields and helped place returning Volunteers in positions where they could bring their Peace Corps experience home to America.
When Volunteers began completing their two years’ service overseas in 1963, I ran completion of service conferences in Accra, Dar es Salaam, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago and La Paz. The key purpose of these conferences was to learn as much as we could from the Volunteers about their Peace Corps experience. Each conference lasted two days and was held shortly before the Volunteers completed their service. At the conferences, we went over every aspect of their experience from selection and training to the jobs they had been assigned in the field. Our goal was both to identify problems they’d encountered and to build on things that had worked well in order that the Peace Corps could constantly be renewing and improving.
Joe English and I ran the very first Completion of Service Conference in June 1963. It was for Ghana I – the very
Volunteers I had escorted to Africa two years earlier. Since the group was large, we divided it into two sections and conducted a two-day conference for each. Those Volunteers had a very dim view of PC/W, or Washington, thinking it out of touch. Initially, they viewed the whole idea of having a conference with suspicion. However, Joe, the Peace Corps’ Chief Psychiatrist, was so skillful and such a good facilitator their resistance soon evaporated. We learned a lot about their experiences and elicited useful ideas on ways the Peace Corps could be made even more effective. We were also able to help them put their Peace Corps experience into perspective and tell them how the Peace Corps Career Information Service could help when they returned to the United States.
Joe and I left Accra knowing the conference had been a success, Flying back to the States, however, our plane experienced technical difficulties and was diverted to Rome. That turned out to be an unexpected blessing. Pope John XXIII had just died and was laid out in state in St. Peter’s Cathedral. People were lined up for miles to file past his bier. Fortunately, Joe had great connections with the Jesuits in Rome and we were guided through an underground tunnel, or catacomb, and emerged inside St. Peter’s just feet from the Pope’s bier. Getting there was so easy we actually visited St Peter’s twice to pay our respects. We also spent a delightful afternoon riding in a horse-drawn carriage, stopping for refreshments in the Borghese Gardens.
Another completion of service conference I ran was in Rio de Janeiro in December 1963. The Volunteers in that group had seemed an uninspiring lot when I visited them in training at the 4-H Center in Washington. Farm kids, they were shy and relatively uncommunicative. After two years in Brazil, however, they had become astonishingly impressive. All of them were fluent in Portuguese and had real insights about the problems in rural Brazil. Because of their agricultural backgrounds they had been very effective, able to make real contributions. When we completed the conference, the Volunteers took me up into Rio’s favelas, which although devastatingly poor, had breathtaking views of Rio’s magnificent harbor. Being December, the folks in each favela were rehearsing their favela’s song for the Carnival parade, like in the movie “Black Orpheus.” The hills rocked with a bassa nova beat.
I left the Peace Corps in the summer of 1964, but the Peace Corps never left me. It has been a part of my life to this day. In 1970, I was retained to check out Peace Corps projects in Iran, Afghanistan, Tunisia and Morocco. (But more on that later).Over the years, I’ve also served on various panels discussing the Peace Corps and VISTA, and have had the pleasure of getting together with former colleagues at Peace Corps’ reunions. I also stayed in touch with Sargent Shriver until, sadly, because of Alzheimer’s, he was no longer able to host old friends at his Potomac home.
An amazing tradition involving our closest Peace Corps friends, Jean and, until he died, Albert Meisel is that we’ve celebrated every single New Year’s Eve together since 1961. We have never skipped even one year. Normally we have gotten together for a festive dinner with other old Peace Corps friends such as Judith Adams, Charlie and Beth Peters and Rod and Billy Kuhn. One New Year’s Eve, I was a patient in Howard Community General Hospital. In order to make sure the string wasn’t broken, everyone came to my hospital room bearing champagne and hors d’oeuvres and we celebrated the New Year there. Later as friends moved into their eighties and no longer relished driving at night we continued the tradition at luncheon celebrations.
Reunions with the Ghana I Volunteers have also been special occasions. The first one took place on the group’s 25th Anniversary in 1996 at Newell Flather’s home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Ghana I Volunteers had been the very first Peace Corps Volunteers to go overseas, and they have remained remarkably close over the years. They came to Gloucester from all over the United States – Hawaii, California, Washington state, Arizona…. Distance proved no obstacle. With the exception of the few Volunteers who had died in the intervening years, practically everyone was there – including George Carter, who had been the Peace Corps’ country director, and Gloria Gaston, who had been a star on my Peace Corps staff in Washington. The reunion lasted three days and ended with a very moving Libation Ceremony on Gloucester’s beach the bond between everyone there could not have been stronger.
A few years later I went to another Ghana I reunion, this time in Chautauqua, New York. The theme of the overall Chautauqua Conference that year was “Peace” and I served on a panel discussing the Peace Corps. Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize, gave a memorable speech about how Costa Rica had completely disbanded its military.
In September 2009 the Ghana I Volunteers gathered again at Newell Flather’s in Gloucester to celebrate the 48th anniversary of their arrival in Accra. They came from all over the United States and for three days we reminisced about the Peace Corps, their experiences in Ghana and about what everyone had been doing in the years since. Once again the reunion ended on Sunday morning on Gloucester’s beach. We formed a large circle as Anani, a Ghanaian friend, poured a ceremonial libation honoring the ancestors, President Kennedy, Sargent Shriver and the Volunteers in their group who had died.
Two years later, the Peace Corps celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Senator Jay Rockefeller hosted a reception at his home for the Peace Corps’ original staff. Afterward, Joe English, Ray Lamontagne, Hal Pachios and his wife, and I went to dinner and spent over three hours recalling stories from those early Peace Corps days. The following night, I joined the Ghana I Volunteers for dinner at the Ghana Café in Washington. It was hard to believe 50 years had passed. There were other I reunions of the group in 2013 and 22016 in Gloucester at the Flather’s and I’m sure there will be more in the future.
Nothing can possibly equal my days with the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver was so charismatic he made every day there an exhilarating experience. His personal commitment, enthusiasm, and total dedication were contagious. He made the Peace Corps seem not like a government agency, but an important mission. I was fortunate to have had a small part in its creation. When I resigned from the Peace Corps, Sarge gave me a copy of his book, “Point of the Lance.” I shall always treasure what he wrote inside:
To Pat Kennedy, one of the first
and one of the very finest of all
Peace Corps men, from his friend,