We are all aware of the recent tragedies that have resulted in missteps and misadventures for the Peace Corps agency and PCVs. Those missteps got me thinking of what were the first incidents that attracted press attention and had naysayers declaring, “See, I told you so!”
I found three such incidents within the first year, 1961.
The first involved a Peace Corps Trainee, Charles Kamen, who allegedly applauded the House Un-American Activities film “Operation Abolition” in the wrong place while attending a Rotary Club meeting in Miami, Florida.
Extraordinary pressures were brought to bear on the agency to summarily drop Kamen from Training. Shriver, however, decided to keep him in Training and permit him to be evaluated on the basis of all the facts in the same manner as other Trainees. What Shriver was trying to show was that the Peace Corps would not react to pressures or pressure groups in the determination of who should be should not be a Volunteers. What was at stake was the fundamental selection concept of the Peace Corps–that of selection based on merit.
The second incident involved Janie Fletcher, a 65-year-old Trainee who had a life time of experiences in home economics but did not meet the requirements for Peace Corps service in Brazil and was dropped from her Training Program.
She complained, saying her release from Peace Corps Training in Puerto Rico was do to her ‘inability to master the physical exercises.”
However, Trainees at Puerto Rico was not judged by “mastery’ of physical exercise. In fact, by June 30, 1962, 470 Trainees had completed the course and a half dozen of them were in their sixties. Each of the older Volunteers followed a physical exercise schedule that was consistent with her or her own capabilities.
The third and most famous incident was the Margery Michelmore postcard. I have written extensively about Margery elsewhere on this site, but what I might add is that at the time of that incident there were only 40 PCVs in-country and regardless of what happened to Margery, the Nigerian government asked for more Volunteers. By the end of June 1962 300 PCVs in-country.
Of course, also during those early days there were some familiar Peace Corps screw ups. Virginia Eck wrote the agency in 1961, saying, “Your letter requesting me, as a Spanish teacher, to complete the Peace Corps questionnaire and examinations for possible assignment in Latin America, reached me here in Nigeria. I am in my fifth month as a PCV teaching English.”
Something never change with the Peace Corps.