The Original: The First PCVs

Credit must be given to those Volunteers who joined the Peace Corps in the early Sixties. They were all kids who had come of age in the final years of the Fifties, schooled in novels like Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, published in 1955, and the non-fiction The Organization Man, written by William H. Whyte and published in 1956. These books were underscored by Ayn Rand’s philosophy as articulated in her novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. Every man, philosophized Rand, was an end in himself. He must work for rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.

None of us knew in the winter of 1961 if joining the Peace Corps would mark us for life, like being a member of the Communist Party, or worse, a member of the Republican Party (just kidding!).

The real heroes were the “Originals,” those PCVS who joined in 1961. Of that inaugural class of 864, 300 gathered at the 25th Anniversary Conference in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1986 to attend a Congressional Reception and hear Senator Kennedy tell them, “You have reminded us anew-as you did with your example twenty-five years ago-of what is best in ourselves and what is best about our country. The idea of the Peace Corps – and the spirit of service that it inspired-captured the imagination of the American people. The passing of time has not dimmed the response or diminished the achievements of the Peace Corps and the qualities that made it so special and so important to the people of the United States.”

Then with his voice cracking with emotion, he summed up, “You have kept President Kennedy’s dream alive. I only wish he was here today to share the pride of your achievement.”


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    Back in the summer of ’61
    Back when Peace Corps’d first begun
    Didn’t we have a lot of fun,
    Jack Kennedy, Sarge and me?

    Some questioned how it’d all turn out,
    But asking not overcame the doubt.
    Just making it happen, for all to see,
    Peace Corps by Jack, Sarge and … me!

    I took off for parts unknown,
    Met strange people, felt strangely at home.
    Livin’ and learnin’ altruistically,
    Oh yeah, we’re talkin’ Sarge and Jack and me!

    Now Peace Corps’ more than we’d envisioned,
    Making America proud of what she can be.
    So pleased we got it started, just we three,
    Jack Kennedy, Sarge and also me.

  • John- Darrel Young was my roomie at Rutgers during our 1961 PC training before leaving from Colombia. He was never this poetic to us but he always has been a handsome devil. Thanks for reminding us what we did back then….forty eight years ago in June,

  • John,

    As one of the first 27, I never read the three books you mention in your article, although I had heard of them. However, I had read “The Ugly American,” and that was what helped to motivate me.

    Steve Honore

  • Other visionary types that were great motivators to get out of the straitjacketed 50’s were Dr. Tom Dooley in Thailand who died in Jan. ’60 and of course Dr. Schweitzer in Lamborene. also, how can we forget “On the Road” and “Catcher in the Rye” for inspiration. Dan Wemhoff

  • Take a look at the blog “Books That Bred [and Explain] the Peace Corps” that I posted on Friday, April 24th 2009. I go into the Ugly American on that blog. Thanks. John

    • Hi John. I am working with Jonathan Pearson to get the reauthorization bill passed. Hope you are well. Best Wishes Judy Guskin

  • The values shared by the Colombia One volunteers in 1961 are the antithesis of those described in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and the other books mentioned. Their values and character are closer to those of their parents – “inner-directed” – rather than “other-directed,” and their concern for others rooted is in respect and altruism. My research on the group revealed that these values persist and continue to be accompanied by actions to help those less fortunate.

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