IN THE FIRST YEAR OF THE PEACE CORPS there was a man at the agency whose name is never mentioned in any histories today, or even remembered by the men and women of that time, all those Mad Men and Women who were turning official Washington on its ear as they created from nothing a new government department at 806 Connecticut Avenue, diagonally across Lafayette Park from the White House.
Even the first architects of the Peace Corps who were ‘present at the creation’ in the Mayflower Hotel that winter of 1961 seldom note him by name. He came and went silently at the Peace Corps, lasting less than a year in the Maiatico Building.
What is most surprising is that Paul Francis Geren was someone of real importance at the agency. He was the first Deputy Director of the Peace Corps.
Who was Paul F. Geren I wanted to know when I found a brief bio of him in an early pamphlet–Who’s Who In The Peace Corps Washington– produced in 1962 by the agency. I had never heard of him.
Like many of those early staff of the Peace Corps, he came to the agency with a history of service in World War II. But unlike most, his tour of duty was harrowing and dangerous and he wrote a best selling book about it, Burma Diary.
The son of a Baptist minister who had served churches in Arkansas, Texas, and Washington, D.C., Paul Geren had attended school at Baylor, Louisiana State and Harvard Universities.
One month before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, in September 1941, and at the age of 28, Geren, with a new Ph.D degree in Economics from Harvard, went to Burma to teach economics at Rangoon’s Judson College. He had agreed to spend two years at Judson as a short-term missionary under the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. Here was his opportunity, he believed, to fuse faith and learning as a missionary-educator. He met his first class on the eve of Pearl Harbor.
Then two days before Christmas, 1941, Japanese bombs started dropping on Rangoon, and Judson College closed its door. Geren volunteered as a medical aide and ambulance driver with Chinese forces who had entered Burma to hold the Burma Road. He was soon driving an ambulance at a hospital in Namkham on the China border, which had been organized by the famous Dr. Gordon Seagrave, author of Burma Surgeon.
In May, 1942, the defending forces were smashed by the Japanese. Together, with a hundred others of all nationalizes, Geren joined General Joseph Stillwell in his famed march from Burma to Assam — twenty days through trackless jungles, often without food or water and always under attack.
Arriving safely in Assam, he tried to join the US Army but was suffering from a fever of unknown origin and failed his physical. It took Geren nine months to recover and when he finally passed his physical, he joined the Army as a medical combat soldier and was sent directly back to the front in Burma, given a direct commission in the field and decorated with the Bronze Star. He served with the Chinese 38 and 22 Divisions in the opening of the campaign and went on two missions with Merrill’s Marauders.
When he was discharged from service, he was at the China-Burma-India Theater Headquarters in Delhi and he returned home to the United States and became an economics professor at Berea College in Kentucky.
Teaching in Berea didn’t last long. By 1947 he was back in Washington and in the foreign service. He would spend the next nine years in government foreign service. His first assignment was as vice consul to Bombay, then as first secretary of the Embassy in Syria, and next deputy chief of staff to Jordan. Later he spent a year as desk officer for Egypt and the Sudan, before resigning the State Department in 1956 to become executive vice president of Baylor University.
While in Texas he also served as executive director of the Dallas Council on World Affairs and in April, 1961, Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State, brought Geren back to Washington and to the Office of International Finance and Development and he was sent to South Vietnam to explore that nation’s economic support for the war against the Viet Cong.
Six months after the Peace Corps was launched, in September 1961, Geren was sent by the State Department ‘on loan’ to the Peace Corps as Shriver’s deputy. This appointment lasted ten months. In June 1962, he resigned to return to the State Department and another overseas assignment.
He made his farewell comments to the Peace Corps staff when they had gathered at the Chamber of Commerce headquarters in D.C. to hear an address by President Kennedy. Geren sold his house in Bethesda and left by boat for London on June 20, 1962, took a train to Rome and boarded a plane to Africa. Traveling with him was his wife, the former Elizabeth Powers, of Baton Rouge, LA, and their three young daughters. Arriving in Salisbury, Paul Geren, always a good Baptist, drank a Coke to toast the British queen as he presented his official papers to the British authorities and assumed the role of Consul General for the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
But like all Peace Corps stories, there’s more to this one.
End of Part One