Rarely do I recall precisely when and where I met someone from my past, especially when it was decades ago. But I remember the three times I saw Sarge — between 1963 and 2002. I expect that a great many of those who met the first director of the Peace Corps, like me, felt his cheerful and empathic spirit.
In August 1963, I’d just spent the summer in Mexico — my first trip out of the U.S. I’d been part of a large group of college students who lived and worked in small Mexican towns performing community development work. I departed from my town of Apaseo el Grande, Guanajuato, two weeks before my twelve colleagues, to attend the National Federation of Catholic College Students (NFCCS) convention in Minneapolis as my college’s delegate. Sarge delivered the keynote speech there on August 27, 1963, to an overflowing auditorium of young people.
“They say the flame of idealism which illuminates the first pages of our history is being smothered by the weight of material plenty which has made America the richest country in the world… They argue that young Americans have gone soft. Today the record that American youth has made in Peace Corps service stands as a dramatic refutation of these charges.”
The charismatic director said that 5,000 Peace Corps Volunteers now served in impoverished countries overseas with another 3,000 in training. The Kennedy administration planned to have 13,000 volunteers in the field by the end of 1964. I vowed to be one of them.
Only a few weeks before, I’d experienced firsthand the difference my work could make and how caring and fascinating another culture could be. Sargent Shriver’s challenge to my generation to make the world a better place inspired me. I would reject the material plenty he spoke about and dedicate my efforts for the next two years and help the poor of another country better themselves. Like me, twenty-three was the average age of the mostly liberal arts majors who were joining the Peace Corps. From 1964 to 1966, I served in Abancay, Peru, performing my community development mission. By the end of my service, Sarge, and the team he’d assembled, had placed a total of 15,556 in 138 countries.
When I next encountered Sarge in 1985, the average age of volunteers had increased to twenty-nine and more recruits came from the professions. There were now 120,000 volunteers who had served and returned home. Sarge had long since moved on: to head President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, be an Ambassador to France, to run as a Vice Presidential and a Presidential candidate, to be the President of Special Olympics, and finally to be a partner in a law firm. Sarge was a featured speaker at the Peace Corps’ 25th-anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C. on October 7. I attended the event with my Peruvian spouse and over a thousand other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and staff.
“The Peace Corps has emerged from the desolate years of 1967 to 1976,” Sarge told the assembled crowd. “It has escaped from the bureaucratic obscurity where it was buried under Richard Nixon… The present state of the Peace Corps is good. Its chances for future growth and progress are better than they have been for many years.”
A law had been passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan, to increase the number of volunteers to a minimum of 10,000. Partisan political considerations had been outlawed as factors to be weighed in the appointment of Peace Corps officials. Later that day, I saw Sarge walking down a corridor and caught up to him.
“Can I take a photo of you?” I asked, reticent to approach my hero.
“No,” Sarge said, motioning to me, “but come stand next to me and I’ll have my aide take a photo of us both.”
I treasure the photo of the smiling Sarge and me. It was so like him to be inclusive.
The last time Sarge came into my life was on June 21, 2002. With his step faltering a bit and not as bright-eyed as before, Sarge delivered a short opening ceremony speech to the thousands of RPCVs who’d gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 41st anniversary of the Peace Corps.
“President Bush’s recent decision to double the number of Peace Corps Volunteers is certainly a step in the right direction, but… America is much larger in population and much richer than it was in 1961. There is no doubt that we can support a doubling of Volunteers. In fact, the United States could train and send many more than 15,000. I like the sound of 50,000 myself; I think it has a nice ring to it! Today, here, in our post-September 11 world, the third goal of Peace Corps, ‘to teach Americans about the developing countries,’ is more important than ever.”
Sarge was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2003. He passed away on January 18, 2011. We miss you, Sarge.
Evelyn Kohl LaTorre holds a doctorate in multicultural education from the University of San Francisco and a master’s degree in social welfare from UC Berkeley. After serving in the Peace Corps in Peru 1964-66, she worked as a bilingual school psychologist and school administrator in public education in California for thirty-two years.
Now retired, Evelyn loves to travel. To date, she and her husband have traveled to nearly 100 countries together. The author of two nonfiction books, Between Inca Walls and Love in Any Language: A Memoir of a Cross-cultural Marriage, her writing has appeared in Conscious Connection Magazine, WorldView Magazine, The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, the California Writers Club Literary Review, the Tri-City Voice, Dispatches, and Clever Magazine. You can view her stories and photos on her website, evelynlatorre.com.
Evelyn currently resides in Fremont, CA.