Peace Corps Training In The Summer of '62

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Training for PCVs going to Ethiopia in the summer of ’62 at Georgetown University [and, I guess, at colleges and universities across the country] began with calisthenics at 6 a.m. six days a week. We were out of our dorm beds by 5:45 and walking sleepy-eyed across the still-wet grass of the Georgetown campus to the athletic fields. This was the start of our 14-hour day of training for Ethiopia.

The famous training camp in Arecibo, Puerto Rico [which is always recalled with a photo of Barbara Wiggins (mother of Warren Wiggins) at age 65 rappelling down a wall in Puerto Rico]. And it was Arecibo where Margery Michelmore was spirited off to after arriving back from Nigeria. It was an Outward Bound extension program for Trainees run by the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin. No one really knew ‘how’ to prepare so many soft Americans for the Third World so Shriver was trying everything.

In July ’62 at the start of our Peace Corps Ethiopia training program there were a total of 340  of us at Georgetown, of which, 110 were women. The women gathered on the grass alongside the old MacDonough Gym. [Today this field is gone, filled with a new gym for the GTown powerhouse basketball team.]

A woman named Milado Lejkova ran the women’s physical training program. She was a refugee from one of the Eastern European countries if my memory hasn’t failed me. The men worked out on the old Kehoe Field, then behind the medical school. That field is now consumed by the every expanding Georgetown University medical school. There were 230 of us, and Coach Steve Benedek ran the morning program of push-ups, jogging, and stretching exercises. We were on the fields for about 40 minutes, wearing an odd assortment of shorts, slacks, college sweat shirts and jeans, then we stumbled back to the dorms perspiration-soaked and muddy-kneed, but awake and ready for breakfast.

We weren’t much in the way of athletes, though there were, as I recall, a couple of high school and college runners,( a good friend and roommate in Ethiopia, Ernie Fox, was one, for he ran track in high school), and a few female jocks, but the majority of the Trainees at Georgetown were newly minted college graduates from across the U.S. It was the largest group of Trainees at the time to head overseas. I’m not sure it was ever topped.

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We had something like 11-14 hours of classes in everything from Amharic to American history and world affairs. Since 99% of the 340 of us were college graduates all of these classes were just massive doses of undergraduate survey courses. Nights were lectures at Georgetown’s Walsh Hall where there was a large lecture hall. The Peace Corps pulled in a wide range of well known administrators to lecture about the world and Africa and Addis Ababa. I remember Chester Bowles speaking to us one evening. These lectures ran late and the task of one of my clic was to slip away before the speaker’s summing up to get out of Walsh Hall, cross the Georgetown cobblestone street, and grab a booth in the college bar. The bar no longer exists but I believe it was called Tehans (sp) [I’m sure there is more than one Ethie 1 who will remember the correct name.]

But more about working out at 5:45 in the a.m. One has to remember that this was years (decades) before jogging at dawn became a suburban thing for Soccer Moms. Unless you were on the track team or played basketball in college, you didn’t run, you didn’t work out, while you might play tennis or golf or swim at the local pool you let it go at that. For the most part, we were all out of shape. And we looked it.

On campus that summer sharing the dining hall with us was the Redskins football team. They thought we are pretty pathetic and they said so to the press. There was a story in one of the Washington newspapers about how the Peace Corps was sending a bunch of ‘losers’ to Africa. They, of course, were right. We couldn’t match them in size or skill, but at least we were going; they weren’t.

Steve Benedek, our trainer, wanted us to challenge them to a physical contest, and suggested rope climbing. I’m not sure why he thought we might have a competitive chance with that skill. Nothing came of it. We were too busy studying Amharic.

On the last day of our morning workout I remember coming back into the quadrangle as the women were returning from their morning exercises. They were all in tears. What happened I asked a few friends. They couldn’t talk and kept shaking their heads as they brushed by me and headed for their dorm. Later at breakfast when we had all calmed down they told us that Milado Lejkova had spoken to them at the end of their last workout and told of her own life escaping from Eastern Europe and praised them for what they were about to embark upon. It was one of those Peace Corps moments that has slipped away in the unwritten history of the agency, into the fog of memory, and to tell you the truth I don’t know why I remember it now.

About then, in those last days of our Training, we went to the White House and see JFK. Here is an account of that, in a shorter version, I have published it before, as some of you might recall.

We gathered in our suits and best summer dresses on the quadrangle and climbed onto a whole caravan of buses to head downtown.

There were other Peace Corps Trainees meeting the President that afternoon. Peace Corps Trainees at Howard, American, Catholic, George Washington universities, and the University of Maryland, over 600 in all, gathered in the August heat and humidity on the great lawn below the Truman Balcony.

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The two males in this photo with Kennedy were both Ethiopia PCVs. The taller one is John Collins from Shaker Heights, Ohio. The guy in front is Dennis Ekberg who passed away a few years ago. The woman in the middle is Peggy Anderson (Togo 1962–64) who returned home to work in the Office of Evaluation in the Peace Corps and then go onto work with Charlie Peters at the Washington Monthly before become a best-selling writer, the author of Nurse, among other books. I do not know who the African-American woman is.

I thought, how lean Kennedy looked standing at a raised podium with his one hand caught in the pocket of his dark suit jacket as he said, “From Georgetown University, 307 secondary school teachers for Ethiopia.” He looked up from the pages and asked, “Perhaps those of you going to Ethiopia could hold up your hands.”

Kennedy then said, “I hope that you will regard this Peace Corps tour as the first installment in a long life of service, as the most exciting career in the most exciting time, and that is serving this country in the sixties and the seventies.”

Looking again at the old photographs taken that afternoon you see the President smiling down at the group of young women in bright flowery dresses, and young men with short haircuts, white shirts, narrow ties, and serious dark suits.

“The White House,” Kennedy said, summing up, “belongs to all the people–but I think it particularly belongs to you.”

Kennedy ended his remarks and walked down the slope and along the line of Trainees to shake our hands. He asked us where we were going in the Peace Corps and wished us good luck. Finally he stopped and said, “Well, I guess I better get back to work.” He brushed back his hair in that famous gesture we all came to cherish and nodding goodbye walked a few yards towards the Oval Office, but stopped once more and glancing around raised his voice and told us to write, to tell him how it was going. He nodded goodbye, slipped his hand into the jacket pocket, and then, almost as an afterthought, he grinned and added, “But no postcards.”

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  • I also remember a required “walk” along the C and O Canal, when a very very tall young man came up behind us and thrust out his hand, “Hi, I’m Jay” he said. Only later did we hear that it was Jay Rockefeller! And who can forget the trip to Olney Maryland to see “Waiting for Godot,” eating in the restaurant next to the theater, and seeing a group of PCVs get up and leave. Why, we asked? “Because they won’t serve Negroes,” they replied. My recollection is that we all got up and left, and someone called Harris Wofford who the next day issued some sort of legal action against the restaurant. I have emailed Harris to ask under what law he did that and whether or not it stuck, but I did not hear back yet. Do any of you know?

  • wow, physical training, when’s the last time they’ve done that? jeez times have changed. our training had some long days in the czech republic, but i remember still making it out afterward for pivos at the pub, and i remember complaining we didn’t get enough allowance for beer. shameful.

  • Hope it’s okay for a Philippines 1 to comment. Be grateful for those PE classes. In the late 60’s I worked on a research project at PC trying to figure out what predicted PCV success. We had access to every record available on PCVs–including their full field investigations, references, training marks, overseas ratings, etc. One of the few factors that correlated with success as a PCV (with statistical signiicance) was performance in PE–effort displayed, not skill. At the time we discovered that Peace Corps had just dropped PE from training–for cost reasons, I think. Also, when I used to interview Latin America Volunteers during program evaluations in the 60’s the only aspect of training that they ever praised as having prepared them for overseas was the outjward bound training in Puerto Rico.

  • Three years later I was at a training program for Ethiopia at the University of Utah, where John Coyne was now there to provide us with some sense of what we will encounter when we arrived in Addis Ababa in September of 1965.

  • Maureen,
    I find your comments always fascinating. I have some questions. for you.

    1) Do you know if your project has been archived? And if so, what would the title be?

    2) We were always told that language ability correlated with success. Did your conclusions support that?

    3) What was the definition of “success.”

    4) At what stage in service was applied?

    5) Are the definitions for the 3-5 scale and its minus values still top secret or can you finally divulge them?

    Finally, the physical training for my group (all women, summer of “63) involved some group activities, such as a survival trek. These were really bonding exercises. The stories of which we would tell endlessly when times got bad and they served to keep us sane!

    As for the wonderful drown-proofing; I can still captivate a bar table with that tale. I think it is because the men find it vaguely kinky and the women understand immediately that the training provided far better capacity to get through labor than LaMaze ever did!

  • Not only did we show up for PE at 5:45 am, but we did it with cigarettes hanging out of our mouths. Talk about The Greatest Generation.

  • I also remember a required “walk” along the C and O Canal, when a very very tall young man came up behind us and thrust out his hand, “Hi, I’m Jay” he said. Only later did we hear that it was Jay Rockefeller! And who can forget the trip to Olney Maryland to see “Waiting for Godot,” eating in the restaurant next to the theater, and seeing a group of PCVs get up and leave. Why, we asked? “Because they won’t serve Negroes,” they replied. My recollection is that we all got up and left, and someone called Harris Wofford who the next day issued some sort of legal action against the restaurant. I have emailed Harris to ask under what law he did that and whether or not it stuck, but I did not hear back yet. Do any of you know?

  • I was one of John’s 340. I will always remember the trainer looking at the group and commanding, “Sideways the arms.” I guess I was one of the more fit members since I did play football one year in college.
    The trainer’s challenge to the Redskins made sense since it is very difficult to pull the mass of a football player up a rope while leaner guys can do it easily.

    I also remember perfecting our swimming talents and leaning how to save another’s life at the Glen Echo Park swimming pool. I used to swim there as a kid growing up in DC. But the Peace Corps experience was new, since the pool had only been desegregated shortly before we trained there.

  • I have never been a fan of any group that resorts to militay-style confidence courses (like the Peace Corps used in its early days). I had enough of those in the real army, thank you. We trained to kill people. However, during the past weeks that I have been doing research for a timeline, one fact is very striking: the lowest attrition rates ever recorded were for the groups that trained in the Fall, 1961. Of those who reported for training, three-quarters would complete two years.

  • Lorenzo,
    The Fall of 1961 was a magical time for the country, except of course that the Berlin Wall had gone up and Kennedy had called up reservists. That may have contributed to a sense of staying in the Peace Corps and protecting that deferment. I could, of course, be wrong, as I often am.

    However, I think that the comparison with military training should be tempered. There was a vigorous discussion a while back when Peace Corps/Bush-Vasquez was considering legislation which would have allowed military volunteers to complete their service obligation by serving in the Peace Corps. That legislation was not enacted. However, I argued that the military trains men (an women) to kill on command and in order to do that it trains recruits to dehumanized anyone who might be the enemy. This means exaggerating our cultural sense of how to related to the “stranger” or “the other.”

    Peace Corps training is designed to do exactly the opposite and that is to help trainees break down the normal curltural barriers in order to identify and relate to the common humanity of everyone.

    PS, in the “olden days” of Peace Corps, there were “group stories,” some of which have been recounted here. My group was all female.
    Forty two of us went overseas and 38 came home. The four who did not left for medical reasons or a death in the family. Our “myth” was that we had the highest retention rate of any group and that was 1963-65.

  • Thank you for your thoughful comment, Joey. I just revised my chronolgy to read “worldwide attrition rate.” Maybe I misled. I referred to worldwide rates, not of any particular group. To keep my peers from throwing rocks at me, I should mention that years later in Honduras, 33 of 35 in my training group completed at least 2 years of service. One of the two who did not died during service.

    The low world-wide rate in the Fall, of 1961 is mysterious. I have no explanation. If I were part of that group, I would argue it was because they were the most chingon and maybe they were. Who knows?

  • To answer Linda’s question, in Addis, a year later, we learned that the owner of the tavern had his license suspended because of the legal action that Harris Wofford took on our behalf. Our action that night was to leave en masse and just stand around the area in front of the theatre. Per usual, we were too early for the play and after the bar incident, we hadto just stand around.

    As I recall, the two PE instructor were husband and wife and they came from Hungary, having left during the revolution of 1956, which the Russian Army put down. He had been the coach for the Hungarian Decatholon team, which as I remember from the time had gold medaled.

    For me, the impressive line of speakers included C. Mennon Williams, former Gov. of MI and later Ambassador to India, Margaret Meade, who told us that the first thing that adjusts to a new envrionment was the nose (important since 90 percent of the housing in Addis had no indoor plumbing!), David Harris the Sociologist; at least those are the ones that I remember. One issue was the we only had Amharic instruction a few hours a week, instead of the four daily of subsequent projects (at the direction of Ethie I’s when asked what the next Trainees should have) and the instructors were often just Ethiopian graduate students, as opposed to trained teachers. The major thing was that we wanted to know what Ethiopia was really like. Even Bascom Story, who was an advisor from UOK to the Ministry of Education, would only say “you will love the climate and the country.” It was a disappointment to me in particular, because the Ethiopian who came to discuss the technical school in Addis told us how well equiped it was. It was, but with machines left behind by a Yugoslavian trade show. There were no spare parts and many were beyond repair; although, Bill Dowel, the tool and dye maker in my school, did machine a new boring-bare head out of brass to replace the broken one that made it inoperable.

    I always thought that there were 320 members, Also, I recalthat 299 of us made it through selection and only six came home early; two were sent home for impregnating maid/student, two by choice to have their baby in the States, the fifth one did not want to get off of the bus and wanted to go home immediately, when she arrived in Addis for in-country training. She had been put in Limbo because she had lived in Japan and the FBI took longer to complete its background check onher, making her unable to join us until a week of so later. The sixth, a fellow teacher who was black and from Detriot, was being called the N word by his students. The head master told him that he had brought it on himself. Bill White of the Peace Corps country staff came to discuss it with the head master, but nothing was done. In the volunteer’s case, he wrote to Shriver directly, who in turn, ordered the Peace Corps staff to get on a plane in the next 24 hours and return to DC, where Shriver waited to personally speak with him. We were later told that he was reassigned to West Africa.

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