Remembering Harris Wofford
I was among the first Peace Corps Volunteers, a new concept of international cooperation crafted by Sargent Shriver and Harris Wofford together with Warren Wiggins, Bill Josephson and others in two rooms of the Mayflower Hotel just days after the election of John F. Kennedy in the winter of 1961.
We were in our twenties for the most part, volunteering without any real idea of what we were doing but following Kennedy’s challenge “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Harris Wofford became our leader, our guide, our father confessor and our friend. Little did we know about him or his family when we first arrived in Africa. He was less than a decade older than most of us.
I remember once, just days after arriving in-country, walking with a handful of other PCVs from the university dorms at Arat Kilo Square along Haile Selassie Avenue to the Piazza, the center of Addis Ababa, and passing a four story apartment building on the narrow city street, a building that towered over the shanties that then filled the capital city. Looking up, I spotted in the window of a third floor apartment, a white woman, an American woman. In her arms she was holding a baby, and beside her, barely old enough or tall enough to peer out the window were two little kids, a boy and a girl. They were all waving to us, the only faranjoch walking down the street.
That woman was Clare Wofford, and she and the kids, as we Volunteers always called them, had come to Ethiopia with Harris just weeks before and were living temporarily in that apartment. This was an adventure for the Wofford family as well as for the Peace Corps volunteers. They shared our lives and we shared theirs. Their home in Addis Ababa was always open and welcoming to the two hundred and eighty plus Volunteers who had arrived that September of 1962.
Harris Wofford was the first to define the Peace Corps as a “University in Dispersion.” It was his hope, and John F. Kennedy’s dream, that every year a hundred thousand plus PCVs would return to the United States with the experience of living and working in the developing world and be better citizens. In actual fact, they would be citizens of the world and chart a wiser foreign policy for America.
One side of Harris’s mind was always dreaming the impossible dream. The other side was focused on the daily life of Volunteers.
When a Volunteer in our first group wrote an overly frank letter home about Ethiopian food, that he wrote as a joke, it became front page news in Ethiopia’s major newspaper. The Ministry of Education wanted the teacher expelled, but Harris let the Emperor know that if the Volunteer was forced to leave the country, Harris would leave, too. They both stayed.
Harris was also there for us when the going got tough. Once on a trip upcountry, Harris visited a Volunteer in a remote town who was ready to call it quits. Harris spent much of that night convincing the man that he could make a difference. The man stayed and was a remarkable teacher.
Harris had found a solution that benefited the Volunteer, the Peace Corps and Ethiopian students.
Today when we look back at our time in Ethiopia, a time that was our Camelot far from home, and we recall a particular incident or event with Harris Wofford. It always returns to us in full detail and delight. And we remember Harris. And we smile.
— John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)
Harris Wofford Memorial Service
2:00 pm, Saturday, March 2, 2019
Cramton Auditorium, Howard University
2255 6th Street, NW, Washington, DC
A public memorial service will be held at Cramton Auditorium, on the campus of Howard University Saturday, March 2 at 2:00 pm. In choosing Howard University to host this service, the family is returning to the campus where Senator Wofford attended Howard University Law School in the early 1950s as one of its first white students.
In addition to his family, speakers offering reflections include
- Governor Tom Wolf
- US Senator Robert Casey
- former Bryn Mawr College President Pat McPherson
- Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Theodore McKee.
Service RSVP Link: https://voicesforservice.org/rsvp-harris-wofford-memorial/
Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to:
- Bryn Mawr College
- Howard University
- National Peace Corps Association
- Global Citizen
- Roger Landrum Global Studies Fellowship at Albion College, Michigan
- Youth Service America
- Voices for National Service
There will be no burial service. At his request, the family will be spreading his ashes on the south shore of Nantucket Island.
3 CommentsLeave a comment
Thanks for the background piece and spreading word about the Saturday service.
I witnessed Harris patience and negotiating skills as he convinced my housemate, the volunteer who wanted to quit, that he was too valuable to leave Ethiopia. He literally spent the entire night talking and drinking beer with the severely depressed volunteer who agreed to a transfer to a more cosmopolitan Asmara with its Italian restaurants, cinema, gelato and the volunteer’s craving for a martini. I saw this said volunteer in 2007, who was grateful for the intervention.
The passing of this Giant humanist touches deeply the hearts of all Ethiopians and Eritreans who have immensely benefited from the Peace Volunteers who transformed their lives. May he rest in Peace and be remembered eternally for his unlimited generosity to uplift human conditions throughout his life.