The Posthumous Book of Margery Michelmore Heffron (Nigeria 1961)
Thanks to a ‘heads up’ from Murray Frank (CD Nigeria 1961-63 & HQ 1963-65) I read this morning the glowing Sunday New York Times review of Margery Michelmore Heffron’s (Nigeria 1961) book Louise Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams published by Yale University Press.
As the reviewer, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, noted, “Heffron, an independent scholar, succumbed to cancer before finishing a project that engaged her imagination for more than 30 years. Readers will nonetheless be grateful for this fascinating, if partial, portrait of an exceptional woman, and regret that its talented author fell silent too soon.”
On December 15, 2011, on this site, I published a blog item using the title, “In Some Ways, She is the most famous RPCV of us all.”
In it, I summed up Margery early Peace Corps career:
As Michelmore, Margery went to Nigeria in 1961 with the first group of PCVs, in the first year of the Peace Corps and wrote the most famous, or infamous, Peace Corps letter home, a postcard sent in the first months of Training at the University of Ibadan.
She was then twenty-three-year-old magna cum laude graduate of Smith College, an attractive, funny, and smart woman she was selected to go to Nigeria. After seven weeks of training at Harvard, her group flew to Nigeria to complete a second phase of teacher training at University College at Ibadan, fifty miles north of the capital of Lagos.
By all accounts, she was an outstanding Trainee. Then on the evening of October 13, 1961, she wrote a postcard to a friend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here is what she had to say:
Dear Bobbo: Don’t be furious at getting a postcard. I promise a letter next time. I wanted you to see the incredible and fascinating city we were in. With all the training we had, we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and in the bush. We had no idea what “underdeveloped” meant. It really is a revelation and after we got over the initial horrified shock, a very rewarding experience. Everyone except us lives in the streets, cooks in the streets, sells in the streets, and even goes to the bathroom in the streets. Please write. Marge. P.S. We are excessively cut off from the rest of the world.
The postcard never was mailed. It is said that it was found on the grounds of University College near her dormitory. The finder was a Nigerian student at the college. Copies of the postcard were made and distributed. Volunteers were immediately denounced as “agents of imperialism” and “members of America’s international spy ring.” The protest made front-page news in Nigeria and it sparked a minor international incident. As the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States put it, “No one likes to be called primitive.”
Michelmore resigned from the Peace Corps and flew home. When she arrived at Idlewild Airport in New York there was a handwritten note of sympathy waiting for her from President Kennedy.
The postcard she had written home to a friend described her culture shock at how underdeveloped and unhealthy conditions were on urban streets became a worldwide news story. The way the other PCVs in-country in Nigeria, their director, Murray Frank, and PC/W officials handled the matter prevented the incident from torpedoing the entire PC experiment within months of it creation. That postcard proved to be a cautionary tale to other PCVs and a blessing to the agency for years to come.
After Nigeria, Margery would work in Peace Corps Training in Puerto Rico, and then return to Washington, D.C. to develop the first Peace Corps newsletter for Volunteers before going onto earn a master of arts degree from Columbia University
Now fifty year later, that postcard, in many symbolic and metaphorically ways, has arrived home. Thank you, Margery.
3 CommentsLeave a comment
Ah, yes, those first weeks in-country are the subject of a lot of amazement! My family and I ( PC/Afghanistan ’66-’68 country director) were just as astounded at Kabul ( then 1/2 million people.) Fortunately, the kids made friends immediately, albeit in some funny ways ( my 10 year old daughter walked across the roofs with her Afghan girlfriends and reported that the neighbor had 14 kids and obviously more than 1 wife!)
The friendliness of the people, the bracing climate and the beauty ( rugged) of the country charmed us; still, we could have written a very similar letter as Margery did in her postcard. You are right, John: that experience probably saved the Peace Corps similar embarrassments
in many countries!
Maury and John , Yes Margery is the most famous of us all and what class to resign to avoid jeopardizing the program. Ah, and what class JFK sending her a letter.
What if they get in trouble? This was on the minds of JFK and the founders. I like to remind folks of the Colombia I White House send off reception where Sarge Shriver and Jack Vaughn were asked by the President to remind “the boys”( Colombia I was an all male group) not to fraternize with the local woman.
Thank God all I had to write home were the famous blue, folding airgrams. Hard to read the content.
But I did run into trouble for sending a letter to the CIA asking them to reopen my application for when I returned home. Our Assistant Country Director called me in to scold me. I reminded him that I had shown him the letter and envelope and asked him how to send it, suggesting that perhaps it should go through the APO or embassy mail. I further reminded him that he told me to send it “through the regular post.” He covered his behind by saying he did not remember any such conversation and then informed me of the then recently adopted policy of no PCVs entering US intelligence services.