Whatever Happened to Mr. Steve?

Most PCVs are thrown into classrooms as teachers to learn on the job, and surprisingly some Volunteers are very good. In my years as an Associate Peace Corps director (APCD) in Ethiopia I saw more than a few PCVs become great teachers. But there were also those who were painful to watch from the back of the room.

Still, you never know how they might influence kids. We had a PCV teacher in Ethiopia who was stationed in a village called Debark. It was a one-man town on the Gondar road, isolated from other Volunteers and up high at the foothills of the rough Simian Mountains, north of Lake Tana, north of Gondar.

What this PCV liked to do most was roam these hills above the village and often, when I arrived for a staff visit, I would find him gone off camping in the mountains. And when he was teaching, he wasn’t very good. Once our Contractor Overseas Representative (COR) [remember them?] said that sitting in his classroom watching him teach was the second worst example of teaching he had seen. Asked by the Country Director, Dave Berlew, who was the worse example, the COR replied, “Watching this guy teach last year.”

Nevertheless, he finished his tour, never complaining or troubling the staff, (which, as we know, can get you a long way in the Peace Corps) and then disappeared into the world. For years later, Volunteers from his era would ask at Ethiopian RPCV reunions, “Whatever happened to Steve Foehr?”

About ten years ago, Steve checked in with me and I found out that after Ethiopia he went off to be a crewmember on a sailboat in the Mediterranean, a construction worker in Sweden, a movie extra in Japan, a copywriter in Hong Kong, a witness in Vietnam, a smuggler in India, a layabout in Malaysia, and a police reporter and journalist in the United States. He has lived and worked in some 88 countries and written a half-dozen books.

But that’s not the point of this blog item. The point is that the Peace Corps staff in Ethiopia always thought Steve was a terrible teacher. And we had proof; we had been in his classroom!

A few years back the Ethiopian community in Washington, D.C. contacted Marian Haley Beil, the architect of our RPCV Ethiopian & Eritrean group, and the webmaster of this site, and asked if she could arrange to have a panel of early PCVs talk at a conference that they were planning in D.C. to be held at Howard University. This panel discussion for many of us was a moving experience, as we recalled Ethiopia in the early years of the Peace Corps. We even got a standing ovation from the Ethiopians who crowded the room, but the highlight for me was meeting an Ethiopian college professor before our panel was held.

I fell into a conversation with a man who had a PhD in geography and taught at a university in southern Virginia.  He told me how he had attended several first rate colleges in the United States working his way to his PhD. It is a familiar story of how successful Ethiopians make it in America. I asked him where he was from in Ethiopia, and he was vague at first about the town, saying only that it was small village north of Gondar.

Now, Gondar and the Gondar Road I knew at one time and I pressed him about the name. Again he waved off my question saying I would never have heard of it.

“Was it Debark?” I asked.
The surprise on his face was priceless.
“You know of Debark?” he asked.
“I’ve been to Debark,” I told him.

Then I told him about being an APCD and having Peace Corps teachers in the town. He smiled and said he had a Peace Corps teacher. A great teacher, he said. Really, I asked. Yes, he said, Mr. Steve.

The legendary Stephen Foehr, the worst teacher in the Peace Corps, was his favorite teacher. He went onto tell me how Foehr got him interested in geography, how he would take the boys on hikes into the hills above Debark, teaching them about wildlife and wild flowers. Because of Stephen Foehr, his long ago middle school teacher, he had become a geographer and a college professor.    

And then he asked, “Whatever happened to Mr. Steve?”

8 Comments

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  • This is a great story, John. We never know how our lives will touch others’. We get so used to conformity that to experience another way can be upsetting. Your blog today reminds me of many people in my life who have seemed strange. I wonder what their impact in the larger picture has been?

  • What ever happen to stories?

    My two favorite include a meeting I had with the Thai Minister of Finance in 2001. As I was cooling my heels in his opulent office waiting for him I noticed the pictures on the sidebar table..one in partcular was a group of school boys with this tall white guy in the background. When the Minster arrived I asked about the picture..he said that was his school and “the tall guy was the PCV that taught this Harvard trained lawyer English!”

    Sometime in the 1980’s while attending a PC seminar at International House at Columbia University I was approached by a Korean in the lobby looking for a Mr. Johnston from Missouri, a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Korean chap wanted to thank the PCV English teacher and making it possible to come to Colombia University for law studies. ( I never did locate Mr. Johnston but I met hundreds like him!)

  • Teaching is important and English is needed everywhere. Higher quality teachers could be found to do the teaching even if it’s only English as second language. I’d wonder why we couldn’t higher professional for the cost of one PC per year.

    Teaching English was always thought of as mistake for a primary program, maybe secondary. Like working at NGOs/partnering/US government funding like PEPFAR directly paying for PCs; we are too expensive for this work. H. RES. 1396 has our budget at $892,000,000; that’s about $100,000 per PC per year at over 8000 PCs. These are expensive English teachers/NGO partnered/ PEPFAR funded PCs.

  • I’m pretty sure I remember Steve Foehr, if he was in group VI. I remember a skinny blonde haired guy who looked like one of the Beach Boys. We used to hang out in Addis when we both came to town (I was in Harar). I’d gotten a reel-to-reel tape of the Animals first album and was playing it at parties all the time. There was one song on it that Steve loved instantly and begged me to record it for him, which I did. It was “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, He couldn’t stop singing and dancing to it. The next time I came to Addis I heard that he’d just up and left.

  • There is a lot I don’t know about Steve Foehr–past and present–but you are right, he was ‘skinny blond haired guy’ in those days in Ethiopia. But one thing I do know is that Steve finished his tour as a PCV.

  • Although, i have always regarded my teaching of auto mechanics to have not been up to standard, because I did not know the theory, when I first arrived at my first assignment at the Point Four Technical School in Asmara, Ethiopia, the students took one look at me and asked me how old I was. After telling them I was 23, most of them were older than me and wanted to know what I could teach them with so little experience. They had been trying to repair a distributor for two days and could not get the car running. It took me 15 minutes to take out the distributor, set the points correctly and put it back in, setting the ignition timing as well and getting the engine to run. They never questioned my age again. My only claim for success was teaching two Ethiopian flutists to play orchestral music when I was a member of the Ethiopian National Symphony, for which my roommate was the percussionist.

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