“The Fabulous Peace Corps Booklocker” by Jack Prebis (Ethiopia)

 

For a short period of time in the very first years of the Peace Corps all Volunteers were given booklockers by the agency. The lockers were meant to provide leisure reading for the PCVs and then to be left behind in schools, villages, and towns where they served. There is some mystery as to who first thought of the lockers and one story has it that the idea came from Sarge Shriver’s wife, Eunice. From my research, this seems to be a true story. 

Also from my research, I learned that the first locker was put together by a young Foreign Service officer. A second selection was done in 1964, and that same year Jack Prebis was made responsible for the 3rd edition of the locker that was assembled in the fall and winter of 1965. Here is Jack’s account of putting together the third edition of the legendary booklockers.

The Fabulous Peace Corps Booklocker

by Jack Prebis (Ethiopia 1962–64)

Jack Prebis

DEVELOPING THE Peace Corps booklocker was the best job I ever had. As sometimes happens with fun jobs, this one fell in my lap. Returning in 1964 from my secondary school teaching stint in Ethiopia, I headed to Our Nation’s Capital, hoping to land stateside Peace Corps work. Back in those days, the Peace Corps was fresh, free-wheeling and unbureaucratic, shot through with idealists. (Thanks in part to the five-year rule, it remains staffed with idealists.)
To my good fortune, as I was being interviewed — was it by fifteen people? — the person who had been working on “the booklocker” was heading to Chile on staff. My biology major and chemistry minor seemed perfect for the unexpected vacancy.

After dispatching a mile-high stack of unanswered mail from publishers wanting to donate their remaindered titles (we already had a warehouse full of books totally unsuited to host country needs, aspiration and mores), I got down to my major function — feet on desk, reviewing paperbacks for inclusion in the next booklocker.

What power! Aside from deciding what Volunteers and their friends would be reading over the next few years, with 4,000 footlockers to fill with 250 books each, I soon learned I wielded some influence. It was tough resisting the offers of free trips to New York City and attendant free lunches. But I learned quickly that publishers often were happy to do press runs of hardback or out of print titles if they had a guaranteed 4,000-book sale. With that bit of knowledge, I obtained such titles as The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola and Blossoms in the Dust: The Human Factor in Indian Development by Kusum Nair [available used from Amazon].

I also learned that my English-Literature- major friends had something concrete to offer (as opposed to being skilled Botticelli players). They were more than happy to help review contemporary titles and offer suggestions on the classics — with never a consensus on either, I might add.

But eventually, I developed a good mix of fiction (over half the books) and other sections like “American Studies” and “African—or LA or NANESA [North Africa, Near East, South Asia], Studies” depending on the destination. Debated along the way: Was Henry Ford a suitable example of American industrialization and the free enterprise system? (More or less). Or, would Ayn Rand stimulate depression and early terminations? (One couldn’t be too careful.)
There were clearance hurdles I had not anticipated with the State Department and USIA. After some concessions on their part over a few titles, there remained two objections: No Exit [an existential play by Jean Paul Sartre] and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Finally, I agreed that we didn’t need to export the Communist line, but contended that Catch 22, in spite of depicting the U.S. military in a less-than-complimentary light, likely would not get wide distribution among host country nationals, but would be good escape reading on quiet nights. And so it was.

Jack Prebis passed away in 2015 after a long and wonderful career in public service. After college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and rose to become a 1st lieutenant. Then, after the army, he joined the new Peace Corps and went to Ethiopia in the fall of 1962 and taught at a secondary school in Gondar. From 1964 to 1965, he worked at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington D.C. as coordinator of the book locker all Peace Corps volunteers received. He returned to Ethiopia from 1965 to 1967 as an APCD.

For several years after, he was an administrator for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America.) From 1974 to 1994, he worked in Washington D.C., where he eventually became chief financial officer overseeing planning and budget for the entire federal bureaucracy. Jack also worked as a mentor to kids in the court system as a volunteer effort. Upon retirement from the Federal Government, Jack settled down in Leverett, Massachusetts close to his very good friends from his Peace Corps years. Today, Jack is remembered by many, many of us who could always count on him.

9 Comments

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  • Thanks for the story, John. For those of us who knew Jack we will always associate him with that maroon Fraser automobile he used to drive around Washington. He had a great sense of humour and a great belly laugh.

  • The book locker was a wonderful perk of being a PCV in Chad in 1967. The mandatory siesta due to the heat allowed for many lazy hours under the mosquito net consuming a wonderful variety of contemporary and classic literature.

  • I loved the Peace Corps book locker which, when I arrived in Ethiopia in 1965, must have been the first one Jack put together. Not only did I read most if not all of the books, I arranged and rearranged them alphabetically by title, then organized by type, then subject. And I read books I would never have encountered without that book locker. The Bridge on the Drina comes immediately to mind, but there were others.

    Thank you, John, for this bit of Peace Corps history.

  • Thanks, John. I think every early PCV remembers the shiny black footlocker full of books, together with the grey metal medical kit the PHS had assembled for us. I STILL have the medical kit, with contents replaced many times since 1963-65, Thanks, PHS !

    As I recall, where two or more PCVs lived together, as in many school teaching assignments, the group received only a single booklocker.

    I think Jack Prebis probably is the archetype of an early volunteer. And like several I can remember, had been drafted for military service beforehand. I can’t remember if “The Ugly American”, that 1958 prototypical novel of what PCVs would be, and do, was in the footlocker.

    Watching the evening news today, I wonder if such a time as the early PC days, Pres JFK, Sarge Shriver, can ever happen again ! Or maybe it’s just waiting to happen. JAT

  • Funny, the two books I remember most clearly were the two that were the most frustrating: The Fellowship of the Rings, Book 1 of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; and Justine, Book 1 of the Alexandrian Quartet. Frustrating because I was desperate, to read the remaining books in both series, but they were nowhere to be found in Ethiopia, in 1965. It took months for them to arrive by mail from the US. Looking back, it was a smart idea of Jack’s to only include Book 1’s to just whet our whistles.

  • I remember one book was called “The Funhouse” and we called PC/HDQ “The Funhouse on the Potomac”. “Moby Dick” was also in the footlocker and I read it and loved it. Sometimes I identified with Captain Ahab and others times with “Moby Dick”, but I always understood it. Years later, I tried to reread it and found it not interesting at all. I guess you really had to be there.

  • John and I arrived in Mettu Ethiopia in 66.
    The booklocker was waiting and we read Everybook by kerosene lamp .
    John loved the entire Winston Churchill series and I enjoyed his laughter as he read.
    Moby Dick was a favorite and often quoted through these years. Justine,catcher in the rye,
    all the classics.
    When we returned to Mettu 47 years later some of the now tattered books were still on the shelves of the original school library wecset up along with 1966 MikelumneHill newspapers our parents had sent.

    Coyne and I tried hard to reintroduce the booklockers when we were running VRS in 1993 but lots of obstacles.
    Thanks for the memories dear friends.
    Patti

    • Enjoying reading about early PC days of these young open thinkers learning as they contributed. This was a refreshing comment along a string of them.

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