Remembering Sarge Shriver from Debre Markos, Ethiopia

[I got this email the other night from Jon Ebeling. Jon and I served together in Ethiopia (1962-64) and Jon wanted me to post it, as being an academic type, trying to post something on this blog is a little too complex for him. However, since I still owe Jon a few beers from the old days in Addis, I am including his great story about Sarge.

As for Jon, well, after our tour in Ethiopia, Jon finished his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburg, and later returned to Ethiopia as an APCD. He taught Political Science at California State University Chico until he retired a few years ago, and now he writes and publishes articles and books in his field of political science.

Here is Jon’s story of meeting Sarge in a remote southern town in Ethiopia where he taught as a PCV.]

“During the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962, I was struggling to explain events to my inquisitive 11th grade class in Debre Markos when I looked up to see Harris Wofford’s face in a hole in the door where the window used to be. I was startled and went to the door of the classroom and there was Wofford, Shriver, a pilot, and a news man from the SF Chronicle. Wofford was our CD Ethiopia at the time and Shriver, of course, was then the Director.

‘Here is someone who can tell you all bout the Cuban missile crisis!’ I said, turning to my students as I invited the men into the classroom at Negus Tekle Haimanot School.  ‘Sargent Shriver can speak more authoritatively than I since he is related to President Kennedy.’  Shriver spoke to the students and won them over with his New England accent, his quick wit, and his wonderful smile. He won me over as well.

After about a half an hour, we let the students out of their classes and all the PCVs went with Shriver and Wofford in our house. Those days we had a kerosene driven refrigerator with cold beer in it and we spent the afternoon sitting around our tukul house talked about how we could make the Peace Corps more effective in our town and focused on how we might relate better to the Ethiopian society.

Shriver told us to go to the bars in town and talk with the local Ethiopians. Now there were eight guys assigned to that town and we all thought Shriver’s suggestion was wonderful advice.  After exhausting our beer supply Shriver, Wofford, and the pilot headed out for the grassy airstrip to fly back to Addis, leaving us all in the after glow of his surprise visit from Washington.

Years later,  I was attending U.C.L.A. graduate school in African History and went to Washington, D.C. for a meeting of RPCVs. This was in 1965 and it was the first reunion of RPCVs. Several thousand of us had turned up at the capital. The weekend opened with a fancy reception for all the RPCVs at the State Department, and I remember how impressed I was walking into a beautiful stately reception room in Foggy Bottom and spotting Shriver standing in the middle of a crowd. I walked over and worked my way through the press of people surrounding him. They were all hanging onto everyone of his words, and then Shriver, in full sentence, spotted me, stopped talking and reached out to shake my hand and asked me, as if it had only been yesterday, “Hello Jon!  How’s Debre Markos?”

Is there any wonder why those of us who served under Sarge don’t idealize the man?

5 Comments

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  • Great story, Jon, and beautifully told. I was there, of course, and can vouch for its overall accuracy. But did we live in a tukul? I am wracking my mind for recollections of smoke rising through a thatched roof.
    Cheers from overly sunny Bangkok (back home next week after three months here). Hope you’re well.

  • Hey Jon you were my APCD in Debre Tabor and you never told me that story. It is a good one. Glad you are doing so well and still have such a good eye for details.

  • Who else remembers the first returned volunteer events in 1965? I told Harris Wofford recently that I remembered how we were told about working for the government. I remember Franklin Williams gave a good speech. I remember how excited I was to see so many of us returned volunteers in one room.

    I loved your story. I had a chance to see Sarge when I was with Peace Corps Thailand I. I remember sitting on the floor of the American Ambassador’s house with Sarge, drinking beer, and telling him not to oversell us to the media. He remembered my being in Thailand years later. I was working to set up VISTA and he was worried about the movie “Volunteers”, He told me to come immediately into his office,because he feared the film would hurt the Peace Corps in Thailand, and since I had been in Thailand and should read it immediately. I told him it was funny and not likely to destroy our future service in Thailand. What he expected to do about this movie, I had no idea.

  • I recall the 1965 event. I was entering the Foreign Service and the State Department where the event took place was my new “home.” Many were protesting the Vietnam War where I wound up four years later as a State officer detailed to AID and its “Pacification Program” popularly referred to as “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” Both the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War were started by JFK. I wonder how both will fare in American history.

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