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- July 20, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 3
Memoir of the Peace Corps: 20 Years Later, Veterans Salute Its Enduring Hope
It was just six days before the 1960 election that John F. Kennedy first articulated his vision of a corps of young volunteers "willing and able to serve their country...as ambassadors of peace." The thunderous ovation heralded an idea whose time had come, and 20 summers ago the first band of Peace Corps volunteers departed Washington for Ghana. The forecasts were not entirely favorable. "What person can really believe that Africa aflame with violence will have its fires quenched because some Harvard boy or Vassar girl lives in a mud hut and speaks Swahili?" asked the Wall Street Journal. But since then 80,000 Peace Corps volunteers have participated in JFK's great experiment in the deserts, jungles and rain forests of the Third World, and 6,000 more will follow them this year. The evidence of the corps's success is on these pages, in the stories of a few of the men and women who served in its early days—and whose subsequent fame and accomplishment give credit in some measure to the Peace Corps experience. They spoke to PEOPLE correspondent Cable Neuhaus. When Tim Kraft, a small-town boy from Indiana, graduated from Dartmouth in 1963, he had "not the slightest idea" of what to do next; a young Democrat for JFK, he had his eye set on politics but no heart for either law school or the rat race. "The Peace Corps got me off the college-to-career treadmill," Kraft says today. "It gave me some perspective."
Thus did the man who would eventually become a special assistant to President Jimmy Carter find himself in Guatemala installing a concrete water cistern in a town that had got its water from a mud hole—and also helping fellow volunteer Carol Bellamy, now president of the New York City Council, expand a school lunch program in the remote rain forest area of Petén, once a center of Mayan civilization. The rest of his time was spent building and selling concrete latrines to Guatemalan villagers who were not at all sure they wanted them. "I'd take a color cartoon on dysentery and a portable generator out to a small town and show the cartoon on the wall of a church, and it would be Star Wars to this poor village, the hit of the week. That was the Kraft marketing program: Show these films, then try to get people to pay $1.50 for the latrine."
Republican skeptics might call it an apt background for the manager of Jimmy Carter's reelection campaign, and Kraft, for different reasons, would agree. "I think it gave me a lot of confidence," he says, "and my sort of mobile, call-your-own-shots way of operating. I felt like I could take on anything." He also enjoyed himself. "On weekends with the local guys who helped me, I would play soccer, play poker, get drunk. I wrecked a car in Mexico and got into a couple of fights—never a dull moment.
"Those were my salad days," Kraft, now 40, concludes wistfully, then adds a view he shares with most Peace Corps veterans: "I learned far more than I contributed."
A struggling character actor lands his best part
"I don't think Les Nessman would have made a very good Peace Corps volunteer," says Richard Sanders, 40, who plays the nerdish newsman on WKRP in Cincinnati. "He probably wouldn't have liked the food." Nor would he have been crazy about the gnawing rats or the cardboard shacks and mud huts that would have been his home.
Sanders, at 26, wasn't sure he liked the idea either. He had been out of Carnegie Tech for four years and "as a young character actor, I was having quite a struggle." He signed up for the Peace Corps thinking he would teach acting in Chile or Costa Rica. Instead, he was offered a school lunch program in Brazil. "I said, 'Oh, my God, this is bureaucracy at work,' " he recalls. Still he went along with it, figuring it would be a good chance to "find out whether I could function away from the theater."
After a training session in 1966—which included instruction in the proper way to wring a chicken's neck—Sanders was sent to Brazil, where he did get to teach acting after all (his then wife, Marcia, who also joined the corps, taught English in an elementary school). But in João Pessoa in northeastern Brazil, Richard was frustrated: He found himself working with middle-class students instead of the poor people he'd come to help. Worse, "There was a virulent streak of anti-Americanism among the university students," he recalls. "They said I was there to hurt their culture." One of his favorite students told him: "If the revolution comes, I'm afraid they'll tell me I'm going to have to shoot you."
When the Sanderses were reassigned to a slum in the town of Natal, Richard found what he had come for. "I kind of enjoyed living without anything," he says. "Sometimes I would wonder what it would be like not to itch." He helped build a road, and he directed a Christmas play that toured the area, raising money for soccer uniforms. "It gave those people a sense of community," he says, "the feeling of working together. I think I was more nervous doing that play, hoping it would be successful for those kids, than I feel now doing our show."
A refugee from China finds her lost identity
In November 1963, Julia Chang was a 21-year-old senior at Berkeley and a brand-new citizen of the United States, where she had lived for 12 years. "I was a refugee from China, and this country had been terrific to me and my family," she says. "So I felt that I should give something in return." On the day President Kennedy was killed, she decided that she would join his Peace Corps. "My mother cried for a week because I was going far away," she recalls. But her request to go to Asia was rooted in an ambivalence she felt about herself that demanded resolution: "The question I had then was: 'Am I Chinese? Am I American? Who am I?' "
The people of Sabah, Malaysia wondered the same things. "At first the students all thought I was Japanese," she remembers. "They were quite indignant and asked, 'Why didn't we get an American?' But then I gave them a little speech in English and translated it into Chinese, and at that everybody was convinced. I never had any problem being recognized as an American after that."
Her living conditions were good ("They knew about Americans' preoccupation with bathrooms, I guess, so they put in a Western bathroom for us"), and the job gave her more responsibility than she could have got in the States. But it also answered her question. "The Peace Corps gave people like me an opportunity to demonstrate what I believe to be the essence of the American spirit," she says. "That is, we take part in finding solutions to basic human problems in a reasonable, sympathetic way." This year Julia Chang Bloch, 39 (her husband, Stuart Marshall Bloch, is a lawyer), has been designated to head the Food for Peace program. (Her superior in that job is the administrator of the Agency for International Development, M. Peter McPherson, another Peace Corps alumnus.) For her ascent to that level of government she credits largely her experience in Malaysia. "I realized," she says, "that I am more American than some Americans."
An author plays out a real-life spy story
Paul Theroux claims the honor of being the first Peace Corps volunteer kicked out for espionage. He was teaching English in Nyasaland, an East African country now known as Malawi, when his headmaster—who also happened to be a former ambassador to the U.N.—went to New York in 1965 and, Theroux says, denounced the country's dictator. He says the headmaster feared for his mother's life, so he asked Theroux to drive her to Tanzania. Then, Theroux says, he was prevailed upon to deliver what appeared to be a simple message to a certain baker. Trouble was, the message concerned an assassination attempt on the dictator, and the baker was a double agent. As a result, Theroux says, he was deported and fined all but $100 of the measly Peace Corps salary he had amassed in 23 months.
Theroux, who now lives in London, went on to become the author of 17 books, including the best-selling Great Railway Bazaar. He wrote two books in Africa as well as some political articles (that was forbidden, so he used pseudonyms, like Gaston Sophia). He didn't write about the Peace Corps. "If anyone were to," he says, "they could do something like M*A*S*H."
Theroux lived a rogue's life in Malawi, in a three-bedroom bungalow with a view: "I had a cook and a gardener. My cook had a cook." To get closer to the people, he moved to a simpler cinder-block hut in the village of Kanjedza. "At the end of the day, Africans sit around and talk and drink," he says. "That's what I did. I went carousing to the bars. I felt at last that I understood what was going on."
Theroux says the corps "corrupted the people it was meant to serve by giving them high expectations." But it was great for the volunteers: "They all went out callow and looking like Pat Boone. They all came back with long hair, much more mellow and kinder people. You could grow a beard, ride a motorcycle, smoke pot, get tattooed and still feel like you were doing something worthwhile. It was the best thing that could possibly happen."
An American black feels the sting of racism 8,000 miles from home
Edith Barksdale Sloan doesn't often talk about the bigotry she encountered in the Philippine fishing village of Gabas in 1962. "It is embarrassing to say that I had to go 8,000 miles to get kicked in the bottom like I could have been here any day," she says. "In some ways the Peace Corps was the most excrutiating experience of my life."
The people of Gabas not only preferred white volunteers but insisted on believing that Sloan, a graduate of New York's Hunter College, had been brought along as a servant of her white roommate; worse, she recalls, her roommate did little to correct that impression. "She and I separated," Sloan says, and they have not spoken since. Sloan thought often of leaving the Philippines after that and nearly did. "Black America was erupting then," she says, "and I thought I might be of more use there."
Staying made all the difference. "I was the first nonwhite that these Filipinos had learned to live with and treat as an individual," she says. "It was a difficult time for me, but out of it came a determination to succeed in anything I do. I had led a sheltered girlhood in New York [as the daughter of a postman], but in the Philippines I developed a feistiness, a stubbornness, that serves me to this day."
A 1974 graduate of Catholic University Law School, Sloan, 40, now serves on the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "I'd love to go back and say, 'See, even if you are black in the United States you can achieve,' " she says. "I have encouraged several of my nieces and nephews to join. I tell them it's certainly no bed of rose petals. And I don't think the Peace Corps will ever recapture that initial spirit. That was a beautiful experience, just being part of something that was so altruistic and so positive. But there will always be a use for a Peace Corps—a corps that helps other people and that helps Americans to learn about themselves."
A Dartmouth jock returns with a sense of mission
Paul Tsongas had earned only average grades at Dartmouth. "I spent my time there being an athlete—swimming—and basically blew four years of education." But when he got out in 1962, he scored so well on law school entrance exams that he could have gone to the best of them. Instead he decided to teach math as a Peace Corpsman and was assigned to the Ethiopian farm village of Wolisso. "It just seemed I needed something more than law school," he says. "My parents were not thrilled."
Today U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Paul Tsongas, 40, says proudly: "I don't think of myself as a graduate of Dartmouth or Yale Law School. I think of myself as a returned Peace Corps volunteer." It changed his life, transforming him from the politically inactive son of conservative Republican parents into a committed liberal activist.
"Living in Ethiopia was the formative experience of my life," he says. "I came to know what it meant for an Ethiopian to be poor, to die from the lack of medical supplies, to live under authoritarian rule. The Peace Corps provides a number of Americans who understand what the Third World is about. If we had had a lot of returning Peace Corps volunteers before Vietnam, I don't think we would have been in the mess we were in."
Returning was tough for Tsongas. He almost dropped out of law school. When he finally finished and went on a job interview, he recalls, "The lawyer looked at my résumé and said, 'Ah, the Peace Corps—that is a transgression we will overlook.' And I said to myself, 'What am I doing here?' " He rejoined the corps for another year as a training coordinator in the U.S.
"I wanted somehow to retrieve the sense of relevance that I had," he says. "It was the Peace Corps that gave me a sense of what it means to be fulfilled."
A First Mom-to-be takes India by storm at 68
"I joined the Peace Corps," Lillian Carter explains with characteristically jovial candor, "because I've always been a do-gooder—whether the people I was doing for wanted it or not."
She joined also to escape the frustrations of a life that seemed somehow to be over. In 1966 she was a widow, 68 years old. She'd run a fraternity house and a nursing home and raised a family of four, including a future President. "I was just bored," she says. "When I said I really wanted to go to India, my children agreed that it would be a wonderful thing for me."
She went to Vikhroli, 30 miles north of Bombay, and nothing she had been told prepared her for what she found. "As a nurse I was shocked at the lack of sterility," she recalls. "And it was months before I could touch a leper without flinching. But I prayed to God, 'If you let me stay in this clinic, I won't mind the filth. I won't be afraid to touch the lepers.' "
She worked long and hard hours, making house calls with a doctor. "We had no car, so we walked," she remembers. "There was a smallpox epidemic at one point and I gave injections. At one house six children had smallpox and three of them died." She says that 50 of her 97 fellow volunteers dropped out before the two-year stint was over.
Gradually Lillian grew toughened to the epidemic poverty and disease of the country, but never to the indifference of the Indian rich. "I saw women with pearls as big as dimes," she recalls. "One woman asked me how many dresses I had and I told her three. She said, 'I have 100 saris.' I have always been one to say what I think, so I said, 'You should be ashamed. The children here are naked.' "
By the end of her stay, she says, "I could not wait for the morning to come. I had 40 wonderful experiences every day. When I left, I left with tears." She returned to Plains, Ga. in 1968, to the same Pond House where she is now recuperating from a broken hip and a mastectomy. But she returned a different woman. "It was six months before I could enjoy being around white people again," she says. "When I saw so much wealth, people so dressed up, it took a while before I could love and understand everyone. The Peace Corps changed my life, and now I have everything I could want or need."
March 28, 2015
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