The other day I got a call from a friend planning the 50th reunion of the Peace Corps and that got me thinking about the 25th Anniversary Conference in September of 1986. It was held under a huge tent on the Mall in Washington, D.C. and organized mostly by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of D.C.. At the time, Peace Corps Director Loret Ruppe attempted to stop the reunion fearing the RPCVs would march on the White House and against President Reagan, but she and her Republican lackeys had to back off when Harris Wofford secured for Roger Landrum, Dough Siglin and the other D.C. RPCVs, a grant of $25,000 from the MacArthur Foundation to stage the conference. Seeing that it would happen–with or without her–Ruppe rushed to take control and elbowed her way onto the stage.
Nevertheless, the reunion really was a Volunteer event, as the Peace Corps really is about PCVs, not Washingon HQ staff, and the purpose of the agency was brought into focus when Shriver rose at the end of the day on Saturday to greet the crowd and address the RPCVs assembled under the vaulted tent. It was a vintage Shriver performance.
Sarge was 70 at the time. As he stood to give the final speech of the day, we all stood to greet him with sustained applause. Years after his time as the first director, even to the recent RPCVs who had never met him, Shriver was the legend of the Peace Corps.
He began by talking about how the Peace Corps was put together in the first days of the Kennedy Administration, and even in the far corners of the tent, the crowd was silent and attentive as he spoke of how this unique government idea of service became a reality. He restated his admiration for what we had done overseas in the developing world, in persons and by deed, and what we symbolized to the people of the world. “The miracle is,” he said, “that decades of war, Presidential prevarication and disgrace, budget cutting, and the cynicism of power politics still have not killed the dream nor staunched the flow of those willing to volunteer and serve. All of you made the Peace Corps a success.”
He went onto say, “PCVs know what they are doing with their hands as well as with their hearts. Their courage, their generosity, their spirit tells the world what American democracy, rather than American power, is all about.”
And then he summed up with his familiar and famous call to service. “Be servants of peace,” said Sarge. “Work at home as you have worked abroad, humbly, persistently, intelligently. Weep with those who are sorrowful. Rejoice with those who are sick. Join others who serve. Serve, serve, serve. That’s the challenge. For in the end it will be the servants who save us all.”