Saying Goodbye to Harris Wofford

This Saturday, March 2, 2019, at Howard University over 1000 people gathered to celebrate the life and legend of Harris Wofford. Family, close and distant, life-long friends, former Peace Corps and National Service Volunteers, political friends and rivals, and strangers drawn to the college by the magic of the name: Harris Wofford.

In over two and one-half hours, Harris was remembered, celebrated for his life of service to America and the world, and as he always was in life, the center of conservation, jokes, and comments, ‘did you hear what Wofford just said?’

It was an emotional and fun-filled afternoon for everyone who loved and respected Harris and wanted for themselves to do better in life and show him that we were worth of his attention and respect. He made us all better people.

So many people were in the college auditorium that I could not begin to recount their names. (Plus, they were all so well-dressed for being RPCVs—I didn’t recognize them.) I guess we have (finally) grown up.

The Howard University Choir

Let me name just a few Peace Corps people beyond the many wonderful friends who spoke yesterday afternoon and told their story and their connection to Harris.

First, to honor him were three Peace Corps Directors. Mark Gearan (1995-99), Carrie Hessler-Radelet (2014-17), and current director, and President Trump supporter, Jody Olsen.

Also in the crowded auditorium were several special Peace Corps people with close connection to Harris and the agency.

Bill Canby, Deputy Director for Harris in Ethiopia from 1962-64, who would later become Director in Uganda, and then, after a long career as a professor in at Arizona University, a federal judge, one of three who would vote against President Trumps travel ban last year. Thank you, Bill.

Also attending was Dennis Grubb (Colombia 1961-62), one of the very first Peace Corps Volunteers who would return to Washington, D.C. and work for the Peace Crops before a long and distinguished career in international banking.

Gerry Schwinn, (Nigeria 1962-64) led a group of RPVCs that Harris joined at the Chicago Convention in 1968 when Harris was arrested for demonstrating. As Harris wrote in his book Of Kennedy and Kings, “Suddenly someone ran up to report that the march to the convention led by the Wisconsin delegation had just been stopped by troops. “Come alone said Gerry Schwinn, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Nigeria, who was then an organizer of Biafran relief. “It’s our turn to march.” He and his friends lifted their banner high and started down Michigan Avenue. “Join us,” they said to me, and—warily—I did.’ Harris would be fingerprinted and jailed.

Also at the In Memoriam was Geri Critchley (Senegal 1971-72) who for the better part of a decade has been a faithful resource for Harris, as his special (unpaid) assistant getting him everywhere to events for and about the Peace Corps, as well as other gatherings that had focused on Harris’ special interests in international development and public service.

Paul Begala Tells of Working with Harris

It was not a sad afternoon. A month after his passing, those of us who knew and loved and cherished Harris, gathered to celebrate his life and work, and to remember him, his wonderful wife, Clare, and their work together beginning with the student movement for a world republic in the 1940s and their book India Afire.

Their children—Dan, Suzanne and David–were wonderful, warm and funny, in their memories of their parents, remembering with humor and wisdom how they were raised in a family always on the edge (and in the mix) of political life, not only in American, but the world. (It just shows: kids can survive anything!)

There was much humor in the memories yesterday from not only the family but also Tim Shriver—recalling his father and Harris—as well as Paul Begala, with Harris’ run for the senate in Pennsylvania, and afterwards.

And finally the touching, tearful, and wise comments from Matthew Charlton who married Harris in his last years and is the man who cared for and loved Harris in his final years.

We say goodbye to Harris and we remember and cherish what he did for us in our lives in the Peace Corps and the years since. He helped us all in whatever way he could.

And we say farewell in Amharic, Egzier ystelign, Harris!. (God give to you as he has given to me.)






Leave a comment
  • John,

    Sorry to have missed you there. It was indeed a fitting tribute to a man who was inspiring.

  • I’m sorry I was not able to attend. It would have been great to join in what was clearly a very memorable service and also to see once again so many old friends and colleagues both on Peace Corps staff and as volunteers in Ethiopia.

    But I do have one hiccup about this memorial tribute. I always considered Harris to be a Big Tent person, who wanted as many as possible to join his enthusiasm for the Peace Corps and for voluntary service and who didn’t want larger goals to be undermined by partisan political rhetoric. I don’t think he would have appreciated knowing that this memorial of his life was used to identify one participant as a “Trump supporter” and another as someone who voted against the Trump travel ban.

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