by Michael Douglas
Beacon Journal editorial page editor (retired)
William Hershey admits to “a touch of idealism” in joining the Peace Corps nearly six decades ago. He also had in mind avoiding the draft. As a twentysomething completing graduate school, he easily could have found himself on a path to joining the massive American military deployment in Vietnam.
Thus, a persistent tension informs his engaging and insightful new book, “Taking the Plunge into Ethiopia: Tales of a Peace Corps Volunteer.” American idealism contends with indelible realities. In telling his story, Hershey also helps us understand our own time and dilemmas, from the plight of refugees to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The book is part of the indispensable (to followers of Ohio political life) Bliss Institute Series, published by the University of Akron Press. Hershey has made multiple contributions, including an entertaining biography of Ray C. Bliss, “Mr. Chairman,” written with John Green. Each volume draws on Hershey’s four decades of reporting at the local, state and national levels for the Beacon Journal and the Dayton Daily News.
Recall that the Peace Corps got its start in an impromptu talk by John F. Kennedy late one evening near the end of the 1960 presidential campaign. He addressed students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Kennedy wondered how many would be willing to serve the cause of peace in a faraway developing country.
This was part of the “ask what you can do for your country” that would ring from his inaugural address.
The Peace Corps was conceived to help countries in need of trained workers. It also sought to promote better understanding — of the United States and the world. It was part of the country’s arsenal in the Cold War.
Students rallied to the idea. Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy in-law and the first director of the Peace Corps, described the result as “spontaneous combustion.”
In 1968, Hershey landed in Ethiopia for a two-year stay in Dabat, a remote town in the northern part of the country. He mostly taught English to seventh and eighth graders. The town lacked electricity and running water. The school building consisted of dried mud.
A boot camp of sorts introduced Hershey to the local language and culture. He also received word he would be on his own — the only American in Dabat.
So began the “plunge.” Hershey found students “hungry to learn, and I tried to feed them.” Grasp English, and they would have a skill to improve their lives.
Hershey won the affection of residents with his embrace of the language, local food and Ethiopian customs. Yet the experience proved humbling, Ethiopian civilization going back many centuries, or long before the Peace Corps.
At times, things got complicated. A friendly basketball game (on a dirt court with wire hoops fixed to tree trunks) turned hot-tempered after Hershey proved an enthusiastic defender. A misunderstanding over cleaning the outhouse triggered sharper feelings about wanting “ferenji,” or foreigners, to go home.
Here, the well-intentioned Peace Corps collided with the longstanding American support of Emperor Haile Selassie, whose rule increasingly invited rebellion. (He was deposed in 1974.) Peace Corps volunteers endured beatings. Hershey faced an episode of intimidation as university students, active in the opposition, pelted his tin roof with rocks.
The Peace Corps advised volunteers to steer clear of political matters. Easier said than done for Americans seeking to navigate tricky currents. After a break touring elsewhere in Africa, Hershey smuggled (in his dirty clothes!) a book critical of Selassie, and scarce in Ethiopia, into Dabat for residents eager to read it.
In that moment, Hershey sided with change, and he did so in tune with the concept of the Peace Corps, advancing opportunity and realizing potential, objectives still resonant today roughly 250,000 volunteers later.
Longtime and close readers of the Beacon Journal may sense an echo reading this book. Many of the essays appeared on the opinion pages or as stories in the former Beacon Magazine. As the editorial page editor, I welcomed publishing the columns. They have a lasting quality as a defining personal story about the connections shaping our lives, and of the United States facing lessons about how to advance its true superpower, the founding values and principles that still attract admirers overseas.
Read the essays in one package, and all of this resonates more deeply. That goes especially for the story of Abraham Beyene, a former student of Hershey who flees the political turmoil in his country. He becomes a refugee in Sudan before reconnecting with Hershey, setting in motion “magical cooperation” that includes a local church, an embassy and the United Nations.
Eventually, Beyene arrives in America, where he thrives as so many refugees have, to all our benefit, the result both ideal and real.
Douglas was the Beacon Journal editorial page editor from 1999 to 2019. He can be reached email@example.com.
William Hershey (Ethiopia 1968-70) spent more than 40 years reporting on Ohio politics and government at the local, state and national levels. He was the Washington correspondent for the Akron Beacon Journal and Columbus Bureau Chief for the Beacon Journal and the Dayton Daily News.
He is the author of three other books: