Tino Calabia (Peru 1963-65) "Reflections After Kennedy Center Premier of Choral Performance Celebrating JFK"

At DC’s Kennedy Center for the performing arts yesterday, February 3, 2013, fittingly enough in the 50th-year Anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, eight choirs from around the country joined together to perform “A Musical Remembrance of the Life and Service of John F. Kennedy.”  The program involved an above-stage jumbotron showing film footage capturing highlights of JFK’s life even as the choirs and a full orchestra presented the world premier of “Let the Word Go Forth.”  Almost 350 choristers sung lyrics borrowing words from the “Ask now what your country can do for you . . .” speech and verbatim excerpts of other addresses by JFK.  

Kennedy Center

Kennedy Center

The program closed with a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful.”  One can only imagine how moving that anthem sounded then, as lifted up on the soaring voices of hundreds of mostly young choristers in the red and gold Concert Hall.  I was certainly touched.

And yet, during the long final ovations, I noticed that probably more than one-third of the Concert Hall had remained empty.  Despite the fact that ticket-holders entered with “General Admission” (i.e., free) tickets, there were large sections with so many vacant seats throughout the performance.

I later wondered how much the program meant to the audience inside or would have meant to the world outside.  Granted that the composer of “Let the Word Go Forth,” the music conductor and organizers of the program, and the older choristers must have retained some feelings that had ever inspired them from the days of Camelot.  Maybe a few of the very young members of the high school choirs singing there also somehow shared the kind of inspiration that had lifted up us older RPCVs and many who faithfully read “Peace Corps Worldwide.”

Of course, I had been abroad for almost six weeks prior to yesterday’s Kennedy Center program and had no way of seeing any recent notices about the coming production.  Only by receiving tickets from a fellow church chorister yesterday morning did I get to visit the Kennedy Center.  I wonder even now if other RPCVs and PC staffers residing in DC had learned about the performance and had been in the audience with me.

Despite such lingering unknowns, I arose this morning coming to a saddening conclusion: that, though still recalled by many, the aura surrounding JFK — and his Peace Corps — seems to be fading away.  Or at least what inspired us older RPCVs back in the ’60s and ’70s (and perhaps even later) may be growing dimmer.

Of course, I know that far more people today are willing to enroll as PCVs than there are slots in Peace Corps’ current budget.  That’s true.  And yet, neither today’s media nor most current opinion leaders and members on Congressional Hill pay much mind to our beloved service program.  The torch that JFK eloquently described as being handed to his and our generation (and whose exact words were sung yesterday), that torch is barely flickering.

Let’s hope that the book literature produced by so many RPCVs and articles about the Peace Corps — such as what John Coyne and Marian Haley Beil are now putting online — will bolster the legacy, even prolong the spirit that may rekindle the kind of vision and willingness to work for peace that once moved the Congress and certainly touched and motivated so many of us, so long ago.


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  • Tino,

    Yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday, practically a national holiday.
    I think that may have impacted attendance. Do you?

  • JOANNE: Good point. But the salute to JFK ended at 3; the Super Bowl started later. (Also, for us DC’ers, the Redskins weren’t involved.)

    LEO: Your question is apt: Just why do most Americans think the Peace Corps is “history”? What was it about JFK’s charisma and our hunger then to respond and do good in the Third World? Why are things in the U.S. today so different in terms of national leadership and Peace Corps voluntarism?

    If more people (who are today the age we were when we answered JFK’s call), were now working to remedy poverty in the U.S., I’d say some things – such as youthful idealism – may be like they were in our time, only the focus is here at home. But few graduates just coming off the campuses are turning to domestic antipoverty work. I dunno. It beats me. Saddens me, too.

  • Tino. Lack of a large RPCV population is part of the reason that most Americans have forgotten the Peace Corps or rather believe that it is no longer in business. If we had 2 million RPCVs our countrymen would be kept better informed of what is happening now. There is also precious little media attention given to the PC today as opposed to massive coverage during the Kennedy days.

    Why youngsters do not volunteer as readily as we did in the 1960s beats me too. I suspect poor economic prospects play a role here. Remember the 1960s were the most prosperous days in America’s history. Youngsters are less able to delay finding their life’s work now that they must take any offer they get.

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