From the day after JFK’s inauguration until June 26, 1961, Sarge Shriver was surrounded by staff he recruited from among the best and the brightest. But not on the 26th. That day, the Director was surrounded by strangers, trainees selected by others, the Volunteers for Colombia I.
Sarge was ill at ease, with reason. The selection committee complained of the “paucity of good, fully qualified candidates.” Some were high school graduates, others had completed only two years of college. About a dozen had not even taken the Peace Corps test. References for most were incomplete, few met minimal language qualifications, and the “special skills” fell far short of what the Colombian government, Peace Corps and CARE, the project administrator, had requested.
It was a hot, humid day in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Sarge removed his jacket. With the Bay of Pigs fiasco the most recent media story on Latin America, Shriver warned the Trainees that these were deeply troubled times. “This may be our last chance to show that we are really qualified to lead the free world.” He said, then told a story of an exchange he’d had with an Indian woman in India during a recent visit to her country.
“She reminded me that Indians knew the American Revolution as the first successful revolution in the world and asked me, ‘Can you bring it here? There is a great valuelessness in the world today. The Russians have their system, but America has spirit and idealism. Can your Peace Corps bring that to India?'”
To a somber and attentive audience, Shriver continued: “That is what the world wants today. The American voice has got to be clear and decisively open. In Colombia, Peace Corps will help them achieve what they want in their own free way . . . you can do more than 10 guys like me because you can work with them and show them. It’s like work on the old American frontier. You can show them how to achieve a free way of life.”
He added that what the Volunteers would accomplish in community development in Colombia “may well have a greater impact for good than the entire $600,000,000 aid program for Latin America.” A message that was repeated to these Volunteers by his brother-in-law at the White House a few months later.
Speech concluded, newsreel and TV cameras humming, Sarge opened the meeting to questions.
A shout from the back of the bleachers, “What about horse training?”
Sarge replied, “I don’t know about the horse training. Down there you’ll ride mules. I know there’s a difference, but the riding principle is the same.”
Not an encouraging answer for those whose “riding” had been done on New York subways and not exactly sure of the difference.
A bespectacled trainee asked, “Can we write articles for hometown media?”
“You’re going overseas to help with community development and not to become freelance writers,” Sarge replied.
During these exchanges, Sarge revealed that a clothing manufacturer had offered to supply the entire corps with blue jean outfits but was refused.
“Why?” asked a trainee in row two.
“Because the gift would be against the law,” Shriver replied.
Another Trainee stood up and shouted, “Then why don’t you get Congress to change the law?”
Sarge immediately replied with his famous grin, “That’s the kind of spirit we like to see.”
Ten weeks later, when the first PCVs to Colombia boarded an Avianca Super Constellation, there were handed duffel bags with a workman’s wardrobe, courtesy of Sears & Roebuck.
The Trainee who had shouted out his question to Sarge about changing the law was Ron Schwarz. After his tour he became an anthropologist and spent 12 years doing research and training undergraduates in Colombia and Africa. He later taught at Williams College and then Johns Hopkins University and went onto establish a development consulting firm in Africa, where he lived for over 20 years.