Talking with the editors of Answering Kennedy's Call

Publisher Marian Haley Beil writes —

FOUR MEMBERS from the first groups of Peace Corps Volunteers to arrive in the Philippines in 1961 have just publish Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines — Parker Borg, Maureen Carroll, Patricia MacDermot Kasdan and Steve Wells. These four tackled the huge task of editing submissions from 91 RPCVs who served in that era, and preparing two print-ready photos from each of the essayist to produce a 500-page look at the lives of PCVs and the long-term effect of their service.

It is a book that will be loved by those who contributed to it, will provide much to researchers looking at what the Peace Corps was all about in its early years, and will be a wonderful resource for those interested in the Peace Corps as a life choice. For me, it is a book I enjoy picking up, opening to any page and begin reading about people to whom I, as an RPCV,  feel somehow related.

To get to know these four editors a bit more — you’ll have to by the book to read their essays — we put a few questions to each of them. So, in alphabetical order —

Parker Borg

Parker, tell us a bit about your self.
Following graduate school, I served as a Foreign Service Officer for more than 30 years, including tours as Ambassador to Mali and Iceland. Following my retirement I taught international relations at universities in Europe.

borg-p

Which is your favorite essay in the book? . . . and why?
In editing my portion of the essays, I was struck by the wide range of experiences recorded by former Volunteers, all of whom worked with the same job title — the amorphous “teacher’s aide” — during the same years in separate parts of the same country.

Among the many outstanding essays, the standout for me was the story by Brenda Brown Schoonover, “On Becoming an American.”

Starting with a discussion of her school experiences in segregated and newly integrated secondary schools of Baltimore in the 1950s and later at an all black college, Brenda talks about how the Peace Corps offered her a freedom denied to her in her own country at the time. Rather than dwelling on the uniqueness of her experience as a black American in the Philippines, she focuses her essay on the missteps she made in dealing with Filipinos, missteps that were not that different from those of many other Volunteers. After the Peace Corps, she returned to a Baltimore where she was refused service at a local restaurant, but moved on and after briefly teaching in an inner city school began working as a Peace Corps staff member and later as a Foreign Service Officer, where she worked her way through the bureaucracy to become the US Ambassador to the Republic of Togo.

Tell us about writing your own essay.
Writing my essay made me think about the Peace Corps experience in a new light, aided fortunately by letters I had written home and my parents had saved. In addition to recalling my colleagues, my community, and my experiences, I reflected on what I had learned while in the Peace Corps that had influenced my life in subsequent years.

Maureen Carroll

Maureen enjoyed an eclectic career that stretched her B.A. Generalist capacities in a variety of “do-good” fields — peace, poverty, education, substance abuse, public broadcasting, and women in development. Maureen has been president of the Peace Corps Alumni Foundation for Philippine Development for many years.carroll-m1

Which is your favorite essay in the book? . . . and why?
Choosing a favorite essay is a Sophie’s Choice situation. Each one in unique fashion contributes to a wonderful mosaic depicting life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the wild and wooly days of 1961–63. One essay that does stand out for me is Richard Gilbert’s “The World’s Worst Peace Corps Volunteer.” It not only has literary merit in its construct and writing, but it portrays a less than “ideal” experience honestly and with good humor. Gilbert’s anecdotes and wry observations are worth the read!

Tell us about writing your own essay.
I wrote my essay early on while we were waiting for submissions from others. I was afraid that if I waited, all the other writers would intimidate me with their stories and skill! I was surprised that I far exceeded original page limits, and yet, even with its length, I was regretting what I couldn’t include in the essay. Perhaps there’s a book lurking there! Although I had my letters home and a very incomplete diary, I didn’t use them. The experience was so vivid and visceral that my memory serves me well in conjuring it up. The fact that I worked for Peace Corps in the ’60s and in the ’90s and that I head the Philippines RPCV group also means that I didn’t have to dust off the cobwebs of time to think about the Peace Corps.

Patricia MacDermot Kasdan

Patricia worked in research at George Washington University Hospital, the National Institutes of Health and the Peace Corps. After retiring, she helped found a senior “village” that provides the services members need to age-in-place.kasdan-pat

Which is your favorite essay in the book? . . . and why?
The essay I remember best is “Thank You, President Kennedy” by Joan Aragone because it captures our shared experience vividly and with humor, for example,

We got sunburned, we got sick, we ate too much; we were in constant confusion. It was horrible. It was wonderful. It was the Peace Corps.

Tell us about writing your own essay.
I put off writing my own essay, wary of re-experiencing the intensity of my life in the Peace Corps. I knew I should do it before editing the other 32 essays from my group, but I did not. At last, once I began, memories surged back and I ripped it out in two days.

Stephen G. Wells

Steve Wells’ eight-year Philippines odyssey began as a Group III Volunteer in Dulag, Leyte, then an a PCVLeader for Northern Mindanao, and ended as Bicol Regional Director. Later back in the US, he married one of his former Bicol PCVs, and raised two children while pursuing a multinational career as a training consultant for major corporations.wells-s

Which is your favorite essay in the book? . . . and why?
My favorite essay is one that almost didn’t make this book. Called “Outward Bound,” it first appeared as a contribution to your Peace Corps Writers website’s “Peace Corps History” feature some years ago. For this book I’d already contributed a new essay about attaining fluency in the local language, but co-editor Parker Borg convinced me to re-edit Outward Bound into a more compact version, then persuaded the other two co-editors to relax a rule and allow a second essay from a single author.

“Outward Bound” is my favorite because it captures the intense levels of personal commitment almost universally demonstrated by these early PCVs ⎯ from pursuing an underwater swim challenge until some literally passed out underwater, to scaling rock faces, rappelling down sheer mountain cliffs, negotiating a jungle obstacle course and trekking through rural Puerto Rico without a map. Surmounting each challenge helped us to shake off self-imposed limitations, expanding our sense of personal capability. The bottom line: our Outward Bound experience set a fitting tone for everything that followed. Attempting to capture that, my Peace Corps roommate Chip Salmon agreed to edit my manuscript and offered his memories to it as well, further enriching the piece.

Unhappily, Peace Corps’ commitment to the Outward Bound idea was shorter-lived than the levels of commitment we extracted from the experience. The camp was soon closed. Parker Borg felt as John Coyne when I first submitted this recollection to the Peace Corps Writers website ⎯ namely, that it was important to include this all-too-brief but fascinating tidbit of early Peace Corps history.

10 Comments

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  • I would be very interested in knowing how my memoir “seems to
    confirm the rumor” that Larry Fuchs, the program director paid
    for the center out of the petty cash account. I was the only Peace
    Peace Corps volunteer involved in the design, construction and
    costs of the Ayala center and I never heard any rumors about how
    payments were made, nor do I know to this day how the costs were
    accounted for.

    If I had the reviewer’s email address, I would surely direct my
    query to him.

  • Jerry, the HCNs on PC/P staff, particulary the fellow in charge of accounting (Leo something as I remember) told me the story. Your account seems to say that the planning, building, and paying was all done without any ‘official’ involvement by the property folks at the embassy or PC/W. And, spending from the Petty Cash is usually done without ‘official’ sanction. That’s why Petty Cash is often called a ‘slush fund,’ a way to get things done with a minimum of bureaucratic red tape. Your account seems to say that’s how it all went. My email address is searlesdavid@bellsouth.net. How did you get the review? I didn’t know it had been published yet.

  • After giving some more thought to this subject I remembered that the government doesn’t have ‘Petty Cash’ accounts; it has what it calls ‘Imprest Funds.’ “Imprest funds are funds . . . that have been advanced as Funds Held Outside of Treasury. Historically, agencies have used imprest funds to make a variety of payments . . . . to make small purchases, to make emergency beneficiary payments, and to pay informants, among other uses.” We sometimes joked that imprest funds were as good as ‘get out of jail free’ cards! .

  • David’s right. As APCR for Bicol in the mid-60’s I had what were called “Class C” funds, imprest funds that were replenishable upon submission of receipts. I too heard the rumor that the Ayala complex was funded through Class C funds. There was much stir and debate when Larry uprooted the country headquarters and moved to Zamboanga. As I recall Phil Olsen was left to run Herran St. and a SSB radio link was set up for voice communication to Ayala. Later the Peace Corps tried without much succss to link each regional office via SSB. As for Ayala, it became redefined as an inservice training center to which some PCVs were invited (along with theitr Filipino counterparts) to engage in educational enrishment workshops. I and my science co-teacher from Dulag were two of the participants. But what I most remember te bottomless San Miguel cooler on the porch!

  • Jerry Your letter arrived today. It was almost too hot to handle. I wonder, do you remember the apocryphal Peace Corps story that ends with “strong letter follows?”

  • David – you can’t drop a hint about an “apocryphal Peace Corps story” without telling it! Names can certainly be changed to protect the innocent.

  • The story goes that a country director was very upset at PC/W and sent a cable to the ‘high-priced help’ that included a two-word declaration followed by the words “strong letter follows.” I doubt that it ever happened because the ambassador (whose name goes on all cables) probably would have refused to use the two-word declaration (at least in print). During my time we often would simply say “strong letter follows” to show our annoyance, or worse. Don’t tell me it’s no longer in use; it was so often needed!

  • New subject. I’m about 100 pages into ‘Cutting for Stone’ and enjoying it immensely. I gather that the story takes place in Ethiopia beginning around 1955, or so. Because there are a number of ‘Ethiopia hands’ here on site ( I won’t say ‘old’ hands), I need to know what you guys think about the book’s handling of conditions in Ethiopia, and the culture portrayed..

  • David–we did a review and an interview with the author back when the hardcopy came out. If you put “cutting for stone” into the search box, you’ll come to both my interview with the author and Shlomo’s review of the book.

  • Thanks. That was just what I wanted. By the way, I kind of liked all that medical stuff (the reviewer didn’t) especially since all the book’s author’s fellow MDs sure have messed around with my poor old bod!

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