Peace Corps milestone to feature historic gathering


UW-Madison will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps with a panel discussion featuring former directors of the global organization on March 1.

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that established the Peace Corps. That order has led to more than 240,000 Americans serving worldwide, including over 6,400 Wisconsinites, nearly 3,300 of which attended UW–Madison. In celebration of the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps, UW–Madison will be hosting a gathering of past directors in a live panel discussion.

The event, which will take place online on March 1 at 6 p.m. Central, will include heads of Peace Corps, from the 1970s to 2021. Participating former directors include: Jody Olsen, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, Aaron Williams, Ron Tschetter, Gaddi Vasquez, Mark Schneider, Mark Gearan, Carol Bellamy, Elaine Chao, and Dick Celeste. Former UW–Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala, one of the first to serve in Peace Corps (Iran, 1962–1964), will serve as moderator for the discussion.

A wide variety of topics are expected to be covered during the 90-minute event, including the role of Peace Corps over the decades, stories of volunteering, changes in the organization, and the legacy of Peace Corps. Viewers are welcome to submit questions during registration for panelists to address during the event. Registration is required and can be completed at

“I am pleased that UW–Madison will be facilitating this conversation between leaders of this globally recognized organization,” said Guido Podestá, vice provost and dean of the International Division. “UW–Madison has a rich history with the Peace Corps, including regular recognition as a top university for producing committed volunteers and one of our own alumni, Aaron Williams, having served as director. We look forward to hosting this discussion about the history of the organization and what lies ahead.”

This event is one of many planned at UW–Madison to celebrate 60 years of Peace Corps in the coming year. Prior to this event, UW–Madison’s International Division will host a virtual showing of “A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps.”

From February 26–March 1, the documentary will be available to stream for free through Vimeo. Access to the documentary is available to the campus community and the public, but registration is required,

About A Towering Task

Founded during the Cold War, the Peace Corps stands as an icon of American idealism. From the beginning its mission of world peace and friendship proved to be a towering task. Imbued with the unbounded energy and vision of its charismatic leader, Sargent Shriver, and thousands of vigorous volunteers, the story of the Peace Corps is a uniquely American tale. From the political machinations to establish not just a brand new government agency, but a new concept in international relations, to the growing pains of an agency striving to define its mission, A Towering Task takes viewers on a journey of what it means to be a global citizen.

Host country nationals, Peace Corps volunteers and staff, and scholars and journalists take a closer look at peace building, economic development, and political independence through the Peace Corps’ nearly six decades of trials and transformations. Before being evacuated because of the pandemic, Peace Corps volunteers were serving in over 60 countries and more than 200,000 have returned since 1961, but America is re-evaluating how to engage with the rest of the world. With government agency budgets under fire, increased nationalistic tendencies in America, and Peace Corps Volunteers at the forefront of some of the most pressing themes facing the global community, A Towering Task asks: What role should the Peace Corps play in the 21st century?




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  • John, thanks for leading and sharing this. The RPCV movement lives and will rise again.

    Mike McQuestion

  • When I first noticed only leaders from the 70’s on would take part, my back arched a bit. Was “deselection” rearing its ugly head once more? But then I did the longevity math and realized it was because I was in my mid twenties during my Peace Corps experience from 65 to 67. That made most of the folks in leadership then around their forties and up. By now they’ve either graduated to that great Peace Corps in the sky or are too old and/or infirm to take on traveling to Madison at the tail end of a pandemic.
    (Hopefully the tail end!)
    I’ve mentioned deselection to younger RPCV’s and received blank stares . . . they never heard of it.
    Deselection was a process for weeding out anyone suspected of not being up to the tasks expected of Americans both young and old, dropped into host countries. Training at that time was all stateside. The deselection process was fraught with errors and administered in far too many cases unfairly.
    In my opinion anyone back then who was deselected deserves a sincere apology from Peace Corps. Just the fact that deselection was later abolished should have dictated that remediation. To be told you don’t have the guts to deal with things you’ve never tried before was just plain wrong and a slap in the face to many well meaning ex-Peace Corps Trainees who never made it out of training. Those folks had their beliefs in themselves trashed and were left behind thinking they were somehow unfit to serve.
    I’d like to suggest that when these former Peace Corps leaders convene, they address this early error in thinking and offer apologies to anyone deselected in those early years.
    It would be the right thing to do.
    Steve Donovan, India 20B

    • Steve, to answer your question of “where are the other Directors…?”

      Sarge Shriver–RIP
      Jack Vaughn–RIP
      Joe Blatchford–RIP
      Don Hess –RIP
      Nick Craw–??
      John Dellenbeck –RIP
      Carolyn Payton –RIP
      Loret Ruppe–RIP
      Paul Coverdell–RIP

      The remaining directors of the agency will ALL be on the panel discussion.

      • Thanks for answering my question John. My guess is that Steve Kaffen had a similar question. Do you think the idea I proposed might make it to the conference table and be acted upon? I remember one guy in particular from our group who was deselected. Soon after leaving the training site in Vermont he immediately volunteered for what I seem to remember was called Job Corps – a kind of domestic Peace Corps – and served with great distinction in Alaska working with indigenous Native Americans. His treatment through the deselection process had simply stiffened his resolve to make a positive difference. It’s too bad he couldn’t have gone to India; he had skill sets that really could have been valuable there.

        When our group arrived in India four of us were sent to the small village of Shivalli in Mandya District in what was then called the State of Mysore. It has since been renamed Karnataka. The fourth member of our team, whose name I will not share, was an embarrassment to us three and after a couple of months, we finally succeeded in getting her transferred because of her behavior. She remained in India for the rest of the two years never making any positive difference that we were aware of.

        That situation alone should have been a warning to Peace Corps that the deselection process was flawed. In addition to her situation, some others who had sailed through the deselection process soon washed out and went home early, further proving the deselection process meritless.

        It would be interesting to know when deselection was finally trashed and if physiatrists might still be used, perhaps in the initial process of vetting potential volunteers.

        Personally I would hope not. Anyone who has the desire and guts to volunteer, especially since our world is now less safe, should be embraced.

        Steve Donovan

    • Our training also included the infamous “Deselection Process.” Several in our training group were deselected for inscrutable reasons. My wife and I made it through the process but remember when we were interviewed separately, the psychiatrist mainly questioned each of us what was it we didn’t like about our spouse. Ridiculous. We’re still married after 55 years.
      When we arrived in Somalia, our entire group went to an old Somali fort in the middle of nowhere for two weeks. There we bonded and discovered that some of those who had made it through deselection were selfish, greedy and “didn’t play well with others,” More evidence of the total failure and irrationality of the deselection process.
      We agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion- Peace Corps apologize to those deselected and deprived of the Peace Corps experience.
      Marty Ganzglass (Somalia IV- 1966-1968)

      • There is a link to the memo Shriver wrote in 1962 about selection.


        I will try and post it.

      • Steven and Marty, and Others.

        I would like to expand on the idea of “selection”. Here is a key paragraph from Shiver’s Memo of August 1962:

        “Responsibility for informing a trainee that the Peace Corps cannot offer him. an overseas assignment is the sole responsibility of the Field Selection Officer, or another member of the Board designated by the Selection Officer. As indicated in the attached sample memorandum, it is usually not desirable, and often not possible, to answer the question: “Why was I not selected? All Board members may expect to be asked this question and one is strongly tempted to try to answer it. Please do not do so! A partial answer is usually worse than none. When asked by trainees, refer them to the Field Selection Officer””

        I don’t think anyone, perhaps even the “deselected trainee” knew exactly why he or she was “deselected” Here is my take away from both my experience and the Shriver Memo:

        In addition to the constant psychiatric surveillance, the Civil Service Commission was also doing an extensive background check on all trainees, including talking with friends and neighbors of the trainee. What is known now, is that the CIA and possible domestic intelligence gathering agencies were very active with covert operations. It might have been that trainees or their parents, in total innocence, were somehow involved with one of these clandestine operations.

        Perhaps a famous one involved the National Student Association. Years later, it was revealed that the CIA had financed some of its activities. The students were, evidently, unaware of the real source of the funding.

        Also, there were many activities which are legal today, but illegal in the 60s. Students may have had a citation for minor infractions, which might have been enough to disqualify them, Homosexual activities were illegal in many states. I think that Peace Corps was far more tolerant, but a trainee might have had a criminal record which was disqualifying.

        Women were subject to many regulations on college campuses. I was a Resident Advisor and was supposed to report violations to the Dean of Women. Curfews were the most frequent violations, but also Dean of Women notified us that participation in protests would also not be “tolerated.” I chose not to report many of such “violations”. I worried that my “failure” might be discovered in the background checks and I would be “selected out.”

        I am glad that such “selection practices” were discontinued long ago. Ironically, I found I was sympathetic to the former occupant of the White House who complained bitterly of the FBI surveillance of his campaign and other activities. My “selection” experience made me realize how harrowing such an experience can be.

  • This event is a reminder of the gathering of former Directors and staffs during the celebrations of the 50th in D.C., but this sounds even better and with more Directors. It’s too bad we’re in this sequestration period, or flights into Madison would be over-booked to attend.

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