I have a minor disagreement with one comment in this entertaining recollection by John Long. He writes that Kennedy’s idea for a Peace Corps came in a “bull session” at the University of Michigan. It was far from that. I was on campus that long ago night in 1960 covering the event for a Kalamazoo radio station, my parttime job during my graduate school years when thousands of Michigan students cheered Kennedy call to do something for their country. It wasn’t a “bull session.” It was a significant moment in the JFK’s presidency and in the lives all of us who responded to Kennedy’s challenge to make a difference in the world. JC Note.
Peace Corps’ early days: The day the FBI came knocking
by John C. Long
Published Sept. 14, 2017
John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps shortly after his inauguration to fulfill a promise he’d made to University of Michigan students at a bull session after a presidential campaign speech. Kennedy ensured that any failure would be kept in the family by appointing his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to run the new organization. The irrepressible Shriver made sure Kennedy need not have worried.
Shriver led a small group that began meeting at the Mayflower Hotel to lay plans. Americans began applying. The first volunteers were selected and began training. Meanwhile, inspired by the young president, I was dropping out of college and heading to Washington to seek to join the New Frontier.
I heard the Peace Corps was hiring, and after passing the Civil Service typing test on the third try, I joined the staff. On Sept. 25, 1961 – three days after Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act, making it a permanent government agency – I reported for work as a file clerk. The first volunteers hadn’t yet been deployed. The file room was in the Selection Division, which screened the applicants and assigned them to projects. We clerks filled applicant files with incoming references. When the required number had been received, an application was ready for evaluation.
Our selection officers, mostly psychologists and psychoanalysts, relentlessly bugged us clerks for hatching files. (One such visitor to our service window was a junior psychologist with a winning smile from Owensboro, Kentucky, named Marilyn Medley. Three years after her first appearance we were married, and 3½ years after that, we ended up in her native state, when I joined the Courier-Journal staff.)
Shortly after my arrival, the first volunteers entered service. A Nigeria volunteer quickly caused the first Peace Corps scandal, when she wrote derogatory comments about Nigeria on a postcard, for anyone to see. Nigerians speak English. She was swiftly recalled.
We worked many extra hours in the early days, often long into the night, for which I recall we weren’t paid. We worked that hard because Americans were applying in droves and Congress initially limited our staff to 500 employees. Treading warily, Congress also initially required all staff members to undergo full-field FBI investigations rather than routine Civil Service Commission background checks. That produced an incident in Fredericktown, Ohio, when the FBI sought to confirm that I grew up there. Two agents knocked at the home of my parents’ next-door neighbor, Helen Davis. The agents flipped open their badge holders.
“FBI. Do you know John Long?”
“Never heard of him!”
The agents left. Davis phoned my mother: “Dorothy, the FBI is after John, but I took care of it.” I was eventually cleared anyway.
I was soon designated to sign Shriver’s name to successful applicants’ invitations to serve. This was done by hand, rather than by a machine; the Peace Corps sought authenticity. Our short-handedness was such that when a new staffer, Jerry Flynn, received his security clearance on a Friday evening, several of us drove to suburban Maryland, dragged him from his TV and whisked him to our office to start work. Flynn took over the signing until we received a dreaded “declination,” a rejection of an invitation to serve, that said, “I refuse to go into the Peace Corps in response to an invitation from someone named Jerry Shriver.” We got the signing machine.
After President Kennedy was assassinated, thousands of people applied to the Peace Corps in his honor. Our bigwigs worried that Selection couldn’t keep up and would lose potential volunteers to graduate school or jobs. My assignment then was in the operation that triaged cleared applicants toward the most appropriate projects. The operation had become a bottleneck. My immediate boss, a Ph.D. psychologist, folded under the pressure and fled. I, the college dropout, inherited the bottleneck.
This is where I managed to make my biggest contribution. The application had more than 200 items, three or four of which were of top importance, but which could be outweighed by many unimportant ones. Fortran programs and the State Department basement full of IBM mainframes weren’t coping. I created a form on an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper with the important items arranged in a grid to be check-marked by hand: Which of our 18 basic skills does the volunteer offer? In which of our four regions does the volunteer wish to serve? What foreign language does he or she speak? We slapped that form on the front of each file, cleared the backlog and got everyone invited to a project within a few days. Shriver sent us a case of Champagne. Bill Moyers, who had been Peace Corps deputy director and had become a special assistant to President Johnson, invited our group to the White House. In the Oval Office, Moyers sat in the president’s chair and impressively shuffled through the stuff on LBJ’s desk.
In January 1966, I left the Peace Corps for journalism. I covered the organization’s 25th-anniversary celebration for the Courier-Journal. I got Shriver to sign his new book. I showed him how I could have signed it myself.
In September 2011, my wife, Paulette, and I attended the Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebration, which ended with a march of former volunteers and staff, under the flags of our countries of service, from Arlington National Cemetery to the Lincoln Memorial.
Because I had served in Washington, we looked for the American flag, which we were told would be up front, but which was propped against some shrubbery, as the scheduled flag bearer hadn’t appeared. I volunteered to carry it until the intended person surfaced, especially because it was Sept. 25 – 50 years to the day since I walked into that file room. I helped lead the entire march, alongside the Peace Corps director and Harris Wofford, one of that handful of people who had sketched out its future in those meetings at the Mayflower Hotel. Sarge didn’t live to see that day.
John C. Long was a member of the founding staff of the Peace Corps, from September 1961 to January 1966. From 1968 to 1998, he was a writer, editor, manager, and ombudsman at the Courier-Journal. Later he was an editor for 10 years at The Wall Street Journal. He teaches journalism at St. John’s and Hofstra universities in and near New York City.