The death of Father Ted Hesburgh brought back to mind a story I heard about Father Ted and Warren Wiggins that happened in the early days of the agency.
As we all know, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, “Father Ted” who transformed the University of Notre Dame into an academic power during his 35 years as president, died last week. Father Ted was also a key figure in the creation of the Peace Corps.
In 1997 I interviewed the late Warren Wiggins about his role in the early days of the agency. For those
who do not know, Warren, with Bill Josephson, wrote “A Towering Task” which was a working paper that they sent to Sargent Shriver in early ’61 as Sarge was in the beginning stages of designing the agency.
Wiggins came “on board” then, and eventually became the Deputy Director.
When I interviewed Warren in 1997, I asked him about other members of the planning group who met in the Mayfloor Hotel, who they were, and what they did for the Peace Corps and for him.
When I asked about Harris Wofford, a key architect of the agency, Warren said:
He was very helpful. He was very important to Shriver. The most important thing Wofford brought was his influence, as a sounding board, an initiator and a friend of Shriver. He was an enormous help to me personally. He sat me down once and said, “Warren, you’ve got to learn how to say ‘Father Ted’.” Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, was called ‘Father Ted’ by everyone and he was important to Shriver, important to the Peace Corps, and we were training our first Volunteers for Chile at his university. Harris said to me, “We’re going to practice now.” This is an absolutely true story. Wofford said, “Father Ted,” and I said, “Father Ted.” “Say it again,” said Wofford, “say it again.” And this was repeated and repeated until it became natural.
I guess being a Unitarian I was uncomfortable speaking so informally to a priest. I don’t know. Maybe because I never had dealt with a Catholic priest in my life. I don’t know the answer. I was a person of limited experience and here I was going out to Notre Dame to negotiate with Hesburgh (excuse me, Father Ted). Wofford walked me through an education process, and I’m indebted to the man.
And you wonder: How in the world did we ever get a Peace Corps?