Sunday’s 25th Anniversary Procession to Arlington National Cemetery Ampitheatre

On Sunday morning, September 21, 1986, the Peace Corps Family gathered beside Daniel Chester French’s statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. By country of service, all the RPCVs, Staff, and family and friends marched in procession across the Potomac’s Memorial Bridge carrying host country flags loaned by ambassadors.

“I was in the Colombia delegation, and our group was close to the front of the line,” wrote Margaret Riley (Colombia 1973-75). “At the point when my group had finished our crossing, I looked back and all I could see was this mass of Returned Peace Corps volunteers and friends spanning the bridge, with the flags of all the countries waving as the group advanced. To me it was the most moving moment of the weekend.”

The procession paused in the stark beauty of Arlington National Cemetery at President John F. Kennedy’s grave, by the eternal flame. Alan and Judy Guskin (Thailand 1961 -64) laid a wreath of thanks to the founder of the Peace Corps. On October 14, 1960, they had been among a student crowd at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor when the Kennedy first enunciated the Peace Corps idea in a 2 a.m. campaign speech. The Guskins had responded by helping to organize Americans Committed to World Responsibility and by gathering a thousand students signatures on a petition to Kennedy requesting the establishment of an overseas program. It is said that this student gathering and petition convinced a skeptical Kennedy to move ahead with the Peace Corps idea after he became president.

The procession continued through hillsides of white crosses to the marble Amphitheatre. The day was perfectly clear under a hot sun. Margaret Pollack (Korea 1978-81) said that hearing the Afghanistan group had entered the Ampitheatre while the Zaire group was just beginning to leave the Lincoln Memorial gave her goosebumps.

When the amphitheater filled with row after row of RPCVs and Staff, family and friends it was time to remember the PCVs who has lost their lives as volunteers.

Lawrence Radley and David Crozier had been the first volunteers to die overseas in a plane crash in Colombia in 1962. Lawrence sister and brother, Elena and Gordon had also become PCVs after his death, serving in Colombia and Malawi.

At the service, Gordon stepped up to address the gathering.

“Until now our grief has been largely a private matter shared within our separate families and communities. But as I stand here today, at our National Cemetery and in front of my fellow volunteers, I realize hat my brother and all the brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who have given their lives to Peace Corps service belong not only to our families but to our greater Peace Corps family and to our nation as a whole. The ideals and values all these volunteers embraced are the heart and soul of our nation.”

Bill Moyers, presiding over the service, spoke of the Peace Corps as “a way of being in the world.” Father Theodore Hesburgh, former President of Notre Dame and a loyal of friends to the Peace Corps, said, “You have been an inspiration to this old, gray-haired priest, and more than any other group, you have been the inspiration of this great nation.”

The choir hummed “I got peace like a river in my soul” while family members of the volunteers who had died in service rose from the audience and quietly walked forward to receive single yellow roses from Shriver and Ruppe.

“What was it,” asked Larry Leckenby (Colombia 1963-65) who had come all the way from Seattle, “that tore loose from our guts and provoked the most unabashed weeping I have ever witnessed?”

The RPCVs who filled the Ampitheatre then were privileged to hear Bill Moyers speak and place their service overseas in the long history of America life. He told the gathering at the National Cemetery Ampitheatre what PCVs were contributing to the world by their service in the Peace Corps.

 

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