Shriver Stories: Sarge's First Words

This is from Ronald A. Schwarz (Colombia 1961-63). After the Peace Corps he became an anthropologist and spent 12 years in research and training undergraduates in Colombia and Africa. He  taught at Williams College and the Johns Hopkins University and later established a development consulting firm in Africa where he lived for 20 years. He has been writing a book about Colombia One PCVs since their Termination Conference. If you have ever met a Colombia One RPCV, the first thing they will say is their name, and then they’ll  say: “We were the first PCVs. I think that they must have been inoculated with this phrase by their Peace Corps Doctors.)

This is Ron’s great piece about Shriver’s first visit to a Training Site in the summer of ’61.

Sarge’s First Words

Looking more like the freshman football team than America’s latest weapon in the cold war, the first contingent of 80 Peace Corps volunteers sat in creaky wooden bleachers in the middle of the Rutgers University campus last week and fired questions at Robert Sargent Shriver, their youthful-looking leader.”  From Time Magazine 1961

From the day after JFK’s inauguration until June 26, 1961, Sarge was surrounded by staff he recruited from among the best and the brightest.  Not  today. Today, the Director was surrounded by strangers, trainees selected by others, the volunteers for Colombia One. I was in the Rutgers’ bleachers.

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 our “special skills” fell far short of what the Colombian Government, Peace Corps and CARE, the project administrator, had requested.[1]colombia

Sarge recalled that,

For five months we had been talking about them, arguing over them and defending them, hypothetically, in the press, . . . I had a final moment of trepidation on my way to Rutgers . . .[2]

It was a hot, humid day in New Brunswick and Sarge removed his jacket. With the Bay of Pigs fiasco the most recent media story on Latin America, Shriver warned us 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 told a story of an exchange he had with a woman in India during a recent visit.

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?”[3]

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.[4]

He added that what we 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.”[5] A message repeated to us 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.[6]

Not an encouraging answer for those of us 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.[7]

A Latino trainee, sensitive to the potential influence of testosterone on his future social relationships, diplomatically inquired about Peace Corps policy on fraternization. Sarge responded priestfully,

As Peace Corpsmen you will be representatives of the United States. . . If one fellow blows, it will affect the whole program. . . In Colombia as in other nations the customs for making friends are totally different than in this country. . . . In Sicily, if a man took a girl out to dinner he “would have to marry her.”[8]

During the exchange, 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 it’s against the law,” Shriver replied.

I stood up and shouted, “Then why don’t you get Congress to change the law.”

And then Sarge said to me, “That’s the kind of spirit we like to see.”

Ten weeks later as we boarded an Avianca Super Constellation to Colombia we were handed duffle bags with a workman’s wardrobe, courtesy of Sears & Roebuck.

[1].  Report of the selection and training phase, CARE-Peace Corps Colombia community development program. 1961.

[2]. Tom Mullins. A microscopic view of a Peace Corps group (text box) in review of book, Volunteers for Peace, by Morris Stein. 1966.

[3]. Plainfield, NJ Courier-News. June 27, 1961.

[4]. Ditto

[5]. New York Times, June 27, 1961.

[6]. Plainfield, NJ, Courier-News. June 27, 1961

[7]. New Your Herald Tribune, June 27, 1961.

[8].  Plainfield, NJ, Courier-News. June 27, 1961

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  • “We were first” is the opening battle cry of Peace Corps longest running feud, that being between Colombia I and Ghana I. Back in the day, “being first” was an American rallying cry. The Soviets had been “first” in to space with Spunick and Kennedy vowed the US would be “first” to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.” “Being first” meant everything.

    Colombia I was the very first Peace Corps group to enter training on June 26th, 1961. Ghana I entered training soon after. Colombia I was scheduled to arrive in Colombia, first. However, due to the opening dates for schools in Ghana, the delivery date for Ghana I volunteers was advanced. Rumor had it that bribes were involved and perhaps someone’s first born. Be that as it may, Ghana I was the first Peace Corps Volunteer contingent to arrive in-country and Colombia I has never forgiven them.

    The first thing Bob Klein, Ghana I guru, said to me when I was introduced as Colombian RPCV, was “We were first.” At the time, I did not know what he was talking about. I have now been carefully
    indoctrinated into the mythology of my Colombian Peace Corps roots.

    The title of the late, great, Bob Klein’s book on Ghana I was “Being
    First.” I fully expect that the next memoir written by a Colombia I RPCV will be subtitled: “No, You weren’t.”

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