Village Life: Peace Corps Experience Enriches Me

Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78) published this essay in the East Village Magazine of Flint, Michigan in September.  Jan is the author of Night Blind, a novel published in 2006 and set in Tonga. You can find her essays, fiction and poetry on her web site, and her blog, She is the interim director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching and teaches writing at UM-Flint. Jan was on a panel discussion at the University Michigan when the university recalled with a series of events and programs, JFK’s visit to the campus on the night of October 14, 1960, and introduced the idea of a ‘peace corps’ to the students at a 2 a.m. rally on the steps of the Student Union. ]

I’m not sure what I was doing on Oct. 14, 1960, when John F. Kennedy came to the University of Michigan, stood on the steps of the Michigan Union and said the words that launched the Peace Corps.

It was a chilly 2 a.m. before he got there after a long day of campaigning, but thousands of UM students were waiting to catch a glimpse of him, to hang on every word.

Smiling and debonair, he moved up to the microphone and asked, “How many of you are willing to work in the foreign service, and spend your lives traveling around the world?”  On grainy black and white videos of this moment, lusty cheers erupt.

“I think Americans are willing to contribute,” he continued, “but the effort must be far greater than we have made in the past.”

And we were, and we did. Since then, more than 200,000 Americans, mostly young, have volunteered in 139 countries.

Undoubtedly, that night I was sleeping. I was in the sixth grade, growing up in a parsonage in Canton, Ohio.

My parents were die-hard Republicans, vituperatively opposed to the candidacy of the glamorous young JFK.

But as fate goes, that October night was the beginning of something that would hugely determine the course of my life.

Because I do know where I was on Oct. 14, 1976.

I was one of those who answered the call. I was in the Kingdom of Tonga, a month into my two years’ service as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.  I was 26, and arriving in Polynesia was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. Yet that dark night, Debbie Gardner, a beautiful primary school teacher from the Pacific Northwest, was murdered by Dennis Priven, another volunteer.

It was a cruel irony that Debbie Gardner’s murder happened on the 16th birthday of the Peace Corps.

(Priven confessed, was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity, sent back to the States where it was assumed he would receive treatment, but quietly got a civil service job, retired early in 2005 after 48 Hours and a New York journalist did an expose about the murder and sank back into anonymity.)

Yet other consequences of the murder – a matter that has always struck me as uncomfortably fateful – led me to the love of my life.

It supplied the material for my novel, Night Blind, which you can read if you want the whole story. Ted and I have told our story many, many times. But what strikes me most of all, all these years later, is the way singular events can determine a life.

If JFK hadn’t stood on those steps, and then won the presidency, if my smothering childhood hadn’t made me desperate for adventure, if I hadn’t gone to Tonga, if Debbie Gardner hadn’t been murdered, if I hadn’t written my novel – many things would be very different today.

My future husband came to Tonga to train the first group of new volunteers after the murder. After his own tour of duty as a volunteer in Turkey, he had worked for Peace Corps Washington for several years. He was a troubleshooter, sent in to address sticky situations such as how to help volunteers continue life after a wrenching tragedy.

He had a huge mane of curly red hair and a cleft chin. He was tall and rangy and controversial, and every day at the bar where the volunteers hung out, I heard one story after another about him. When I finally met him, I flirted shamelessly and found him irresistible.

He was married. His second wife was expecting their first child.

But something hooked me. After he went back to Los Angeles, we wrote long letters back and forth for months. He touched me.

Thinking about the anniversary, I pulled out, for the hundredth time, my old Peace Corps journals. Yes, I have written evidence of all these events so long ago. The journal from Sept. 21, 1976 to March 3, 1977 is blue with gold filigree trim. If I lift it to my nose, I still can catch a whiff of the provocative mildewy fragrance of Tonga back then.

In my journal, I at first regarded our brief intense encounter almost dismissively. I had other fish to fry. Tonga was a puritanical country and there was no such thing as privacy. I had two years ahead of me and that was what mattered – not some LA-style affair with a married man.

But the week after he left, I wrote, “Being with him:  I needed it … he was really with me … and though being with him has brought a giant dose of pain and discomfort in my relationship with Tonga, I feel more alive, more aware, changed in some way. Some new doors opened, some old shutters cracked a bit to let in some sun, some old flying buttresses crumbled a little and a couple of new bricks were added on.”

It wasn’t until recently that I found a later entry, months after he left, that totally shocked me. “Thinking about Ted,” I wrote, “and fantasizing being married to him. I don’t know … maybe I will be married to Ted someday. Wife No. 3.”

We didn’t see each other for 25 years. And then, after a series of other miracles, one day in 2001 he stepped across my threshold right here in Flint. After decades of being bumped around by life, we found our love again. This time, it is seasoned by hard experience, humility and gratitude. But, remarkably, no less ardor.

So I know what I’ll be doing this October 14. I’ll be in Ann Arbor, standing on those very steps at the Michigan Union, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Peace Corps with other former volunteers. The Peace Corps’ 50 years and my whole adult life have been inextricably, remarkably woven. As a sixth grader snoozing through that Tuesday night long ago, I never would have guessed. But I think I would have liked it, if I’d known – that in just a few years because of that handsome Democrat on the rain-slicked steps, I’d be going to Polynesia, and that eventually I’d write a novel about it, and eventually after that, I’d marry the man I met there under the swishing palm trees.

Life is full of surprises, both bittersweet and serendipitous. My history with Peace Corps is replete with poignance and remarkable good fortune. I am awed and grateful that my powerful Peace Corps experience continues to bless me.


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