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Signing up for the Peace Corps
57-year-old ready for the
“toughest job he'll ever love”
By Jim Bissett
The Morgantown Dominion Post
It's not every guy who can laugh at 6:00 AM, but David Kurtz did this past Wednesday.
He chuckled, anyway.
OK, he smiled. A little one. He wasn't quite awake.
That's because the roosters of Paix Bouche, Dominica [NOTE: Actually, I am on St. Lucia, but Dominica is one of the four island nations where I might be assigned], are nothing but punctual.
It was first light at that dawning hour, in the little mountain town in the Caribbean with the steep, steep road leading to it, when the birds punched in for work.
They crowed, one right after the other, in a call-and-response that would make even a morning person fry up a revenge plot most fowl.
Other times, they harmonized—just like Col. Harlan Sanders' favorite doo-wop group.
Kurtz now knows how the high-incline town got its name.
Loosely translated from Creole, “paix bouche” is a leveling directive that means “Shut your mouth” in English.
Mouths or beaks. No matter.
“I wanted to share that,” Kurtz wrote in an email to The Dominion Post at 6:08 AM that same day. “Before I went off to class.”
Good thing he retired so he could do all this work.
Kurtz, 57, a WVU College of Law graduate who worked 30 years for NASA and the federal Department of the Treasury, left a job he loved—for the toughest job he'll ever love.
The Peace Corps. The toughest job you'll ever love.
That was the tag line for public service announcements that popped up on TV in the 1970s to recruit volunteers for the outreach organization that was signed into being a decade before by the John F. Kennedy administration.
Kurtz and Kennedy go way back. The once-and-future Peace Corps volunteer was a little boy when those bullets were fired into the president's motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
In the family living room back home in Parkersburg, Joan Kurtz gentle explained to her 5-year-old why everybody was suddenly crying on the black-and-white console TV in the corner.
It was Joan who suggested that David draw an American flag as a patriotic get-well card for the fallen president.
They never got a chance to send it to Parkland Memorial Hospital.
David Kurtz's mother, who recognized a good, teachable moment when she saw it, grabbed the drawing and saved it.
“Well, of course, it was history,” said Mrs. Kurtz, who went on to a career as a nurse in Wood County's public school system. “That's why I wanted to save it for Dave.”
Kennedy's “Ask not” ethos resonated in the Kurtz household. That was the president's call in his inaugural address for Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
David's parents did that without making a deal about it. They were always volunteering and supporting community causes.
And they were all the time telling their son to appreciate he was growing up in comfortable circumstances—and that he should never hesitate to help those who weren't so lucky.
“All that stuck with Dave,” marveled his father, Harry, who is retired from G.E. Plastics.
David Kurtz would go on to earn a political science degree from the University of Charleston and would continue at WVU, taking a master's degree in public administration on top of graduating from law school.
At first, he wasn't sure if he had any academic energy left for law school. He did have a Plan B, however.
If he had to bail from the WVU College of Law, he'd go forth to serve the world in the Peace Corps.
Might as well do some good while recovering from a book-burnout, he reasoned.
After two years at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, Kurtz took a hometown transfer to a Treasury Department facility in Parkersburg, where he served a few terms on the Wood County Board of Education and was also an adjunct political science professor at WVU-Parkersburg (WVU-P).
His WVU-P classes always started the same way. Kurtz would give a practice test on that first night based on real questions from the U.S. Citizenship test.
“I've always had a strong sense of patriotism and public service,” he said. “I realize how lucky I was to have been born here, and I made sure my students understood how lucky they were to be here, too.”
Today, Harry Kurtz laughs at his reaction when his son, pushing 60, told him he was joining the Peace Corps and selling his home in the process.
“I have to be honest,” the elder Kurtz said. “When he told me, the first thing I said was, 'Have you lost your mind?' I just figured he'd stay in teaching after he retired.”
Which he is, his father said.
Just in a whole different culture.
He'll spend the next two years teaching literacy skills in Paix Bouche and other locales across the Caribbean.
“He's just always felt that he's owed his country,” Harry Kurtz said.
“Ask not,” Joan Kurtz added.
More than 650 West Virginians—now including David Kurtz—have signed up with the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961.
Some 220,000 Americans have served during the Peace Corps' past 54 years.
To date, you'll find Peace Corps volunteers in 60 countries across the globe, and 7 percent of them—Kurtz included—are over the age of 50.
“Our older volunteers bring a wealth of experience,” said Sarah Reichle, who handles public affairs for the Peace Corps' Mid-Atlantic Regional Recruiting Office, in Washington, D.C.
“They're the ones who are the professors and CEOs,” said Reichle, who served a year-and-a-half in Ecuador with the organization.
“They know how to start up companies, how to help people accomplish their goals.”
In case you are wondering, Kurtz isn't the oldest among his tropical group.
That honor belongs to a 77-year-old retired anthropologist, he said.
There's also a recent Yale graduate from Texas, to go with that husband and wife who recently retired as public defenders. A young educator on board spent this past year teaching school in inner-city Philadelphia.
“They're an amazing collection of Americans,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz and the others in his group landed in the Caribbean two weeks ago.
He'll begin teaching those literacy classes for youngsters in grades 1-3 in August.
Right now, he's living in the home of an older woman who regularly hosts Peace Corps volunteers.
He's getting an education in the art of local cuisine, having dug into breadfruit, dasheen, crystal fin—and that's just for the introductory eats.
“It's been quite an adventure so far,” he said, “and it's only just beginning.”
The all-day training sessions focus on local culture, health concerns and other issues that pertain to the four island nations of the Caribbean.
He's pretty tired at the end of the day, but he doesn't think he has to worry about oversleeping. The roosters are big on wake-up calls.
I very much appreciate the writer's interest in my story. What is especially amazing is that he did it with very little input from me. I thought I'd share his original email below, as well as my three brief responses to him. All the rest of it he surmised from talking with my parents and a Peace Corps public affairs person, as well as from my blog. So I'm impressed with how he creatively handled our limited interactions. Here is his original email:
My name is Jim Bissett, and I’m a reporter with The Dominion Post in Morgantown, W.Va.
I’m checking with you – I know this obviously a busy time for you – for a story on your Peace Corps experience I’d like to have for this Sunday’s (June 21) edition. I see kind of an “Ask not – all over again” take for the story.
Is it possible for you to respond to some questions by email? I’m out of the office Thursday and Friday, so if I could get them by Wednesday (provided your schedule allows) that would be great.
Your blog entries are fantastic, so I don’t have to burden you with background questions as I write about your journey.
What I’d like to know are:
--Your impressions now that you’re out with a host families – plus, exactly where you are in the Eastern Caribbean.
--What “English literacy” entails, exactly. Will you teach an English as a Second Language course, or will you do novels? (For some reason, I’m thinking “The Catcher in the Rye” and what that could mean for Creole ears).
--What you think of your fellow volunteers. Have you made friends? Are you the oldest guy in the room? (I turn 56 on July 16th, so we’re in the same neighborhood).
Thanks very much,
Here are the three emails that I sent back to him (after checking first that it was okay to do so).
You asked about my colleagues and if I am the oldest. They are an amazing collection of Americans! Here are just a few examples:
* A Penn State grad who got a Fulbright scholarship and went to India to teach
* A recent Yale grad from Texas
* A retired University of Missouri professor
* A married couple who retired recently after a legal career as public defenders
* A young man who just finished "City Year" teaching at an inner city school in Philly
A total of nine out of the 32 are over the age of 50, and I am not the oldest. That title goes to a retired anthropologist who is 77 years young. However, she is not the oldest currently serving around the world with the Peace Corps--somewhere there is a 79 year old serving.
I'll answer more later.
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Here are a few pix [NOTE: These pictures appear earlier in my blog, so I'm not repeating them here.]. The first is a view from the Benedictine Abbey where we spent the first two days.
Here is a picture of the road in front of my homestay house, with a local "bus" passing by.
The bus system is just vans, with green license plates starting with "M" (notice that they drive on the opposite side of the road, which is one reason why Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to drive here). We (myself and a few other volunteers) are in a small village up on top of a mountain. Every morning I take a 25 minute walk down the steep hill to our training location, but then ride the bus back up the hill during the late afternoon heat.
I am currently living in a home of an older woman who has previously hosted Peace Corps volunteers. She is very nice and is teaching me a lot about local produce and cooking methods. I love the tamarind juice she makes. I've also enjoyed my first taste of breadfruit, dasheen, crystal fin, and more. It is quite enlightening.
We will live with host families for seven weeks on St. Lucia, until August 1. Then, we will be split up among the four island nations, and will live with new host families for three more weeks in our assigned neighborhood. After three weeks, we can move into our own Peace Corps approved apartments. School begins shortly after that.
Our training is intensive. It seems as if I am in graduate school at WVU again. We arrived on Friday and have been in training activities every day since. We will have a special training event this coming Saturday, so Sunday will be my first day off since I spoke to the North Morgantown Rotary Club last Wednesday.
The training we receive covers local culture, health concerns, safety issues, etc. It also focuses on the "Reading Literacy" program that we will run. It is an effort to improve reading skills for students in grades 1 through 3. We will be working in local elementary schools, helping to co-teach, working with small groups and individual pull-out programs, conducting assessments, etc.
It has been quite an adventure so far, and it has only just begun! I'm looking forward to what lies ahead!
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3rd message (sent early last Wednesday morning):
I had a thought overnight that it might help your readers if I add this observation: "The road might be compared to Falling Run Road in Morgantown, but windier and steeper."
You also asked where we actually are located. Our training is being conducted in the town of Babonneau at their community building. Babonneau is a town in the mountains. Volunteers are scattered with host families in Babonneau and the surrounding villages. A few volunteers are pretty close to the training site. Some live below the training center and must walk uphill in the morning, but I live much higher so we get our exercise by walking downhill in the coolness of the morning. I am with five other volunteers in a community called Paix Bouche that is at the top of the mountain. Although I can't see it from my house, some of my neighboring volunteers have a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside with the ocean in the distance. It is beautiful!
I awoke with the neighborhood roosters crowing and had to share this with you before I go to class.