Saturday, September 19, 2015

Back-to-School Book Report

My school finally opened its doors to students on Wednesday this week, and thus I have been very busy at work. In the spirit of the new academic year, I thought I'd share this “book report” I wrote recently.

JFK's Children

In May 1979, the commencement speaker at the University of Charleston was West Virginia native Charles Peters. I attended the ceremony because I was student body president during my junior year, and not because I was graduating that day. I'm glad I went, though, because I enjoyed Mr. Peters' address. I ended up subscribing to his magazine, “The Washington Monthly,” and liked reading his “Tilting at Windmills” monthly column for many years. I learned a lot from him. However, he was much more than just an editor of an influential government-oriented magazine.

Charles Peters had been a member of the West Virginia Legislature from Kanawha County, and worked with the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960. After impressing the JFK folks during West Virginia's pivotal primary election in 1960, he went on to perform more campaign work for them that year. Following the inauguration, Sargent Shriver (JFK's brother-in-law and the first Peace Corps director) invited Peters to come to Washington and help establish the Peace Corps in early 1961. Peters played a key role during the first five years as head of the division that did internal evaluations—one of several organizational innovations that the Peace Corps started.

Sargent Shriver is another fascinating person who I first took notice of in 1972 when George McGovern tabbed him as his vice-presidential running mate (after Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton stepped down). Younger people today might know of him because he was Maria Shriver's father, but he was so much more than that. I plan on reading his biography (which I saw in our Peace Corps library at our office) soon. [The Peace Corps has a long tradition of providing lending libraries for its volunteers, thus I didn't need to pack a lot of books to bring with me.]

Yet another person who I have always admired is Bill Moyers. I knew that Moyers had worked for the Peace Corps, and had been an important advisor to fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson. I can remember watching my first episode of his public television show “Bill Moyers Journal” when he interviewed a black woman with a charming voice who I had been unfamiliar with until that time—her name was Maya Angelou (I was fortunate to attend her speech at Marietta College some years ago).

Knowing that three men whom I had long revered were all involved in setting up the Peace Corps, the first book I took from our Peace Corps library at our office in the capital of Roseau was “The Bold Experiment—JFK's Peace Corps.” Written by Gerard Rice, it provides an exciting look at what it took to build the Peace Corps as a completely new and different federal agency in only a few short months.

Besides giving me insights into the important roles played by Shriver, Moyers, and Peters, I learned that there was another person from my past who was also somewhat involved. During my college years at UC and later at WVU, I always enjoyed going to hear special speakers that frequently visited college campuses. One night at UC, I went to an interesting lecture by Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It turns out that the former Yale chaplain, minister, activist, and author had also been involved in the early years of the Peace Corps.

I also learned that Hubert Humphrey was also a key player in establishing the Peace Corps. In fact, he had proposed similar legislation prior to the election of 1960. He served as the lead sponsor for the Peace Corps bill in the Senate.

I'm very glad that I read this book (but not so glad that Tropical Storm Erika gave me lots of extra time to finish it). I'd recommend it for anyone interested in joining the Peace Corps, and especially for my fellow volunteers currently serving. I feel it is important to have some background on the heritage of our agency to understand why we do some of the things we are doing more than half a century later.

For example, unlike other federal agencies, the Peace Corps was set up with the concept of the “Five Year Flush”—that employees (preferably former Volunteers) would only stay in the agency for no more than five years. Some institutional knowledge is surely lost, but the constant flow of fresh perspectives (especially from former Volunteers who had worked on the front lines) keeps the Peace Corps more attuned to its needs. Although not perfect, the Peace Corps tries to be different than most government bureaucracies. [It seems a lot better to me than the agency where I worked the past few decades.]

This book was also important to me because I can barely remember the Kennedy administration from my childhood. Yet knowing more about those years is even more crucial to me now that I am working as a teacher in a small Third World village, just as Kennedy and others at that time had envisioned. A big reason for my desire to serve in the Peace Corps comes from my admiration for JFK. Joining the Peace Corps is how I can respond to his famous inaugural challenge of “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” [Below is one of those souvenir "squished pennies" I got in Washington many years ago. I brought it along with me on this journey because it has the inaugural quote.]

I wasn't even in school yet when JFK was assassinated, but I remember that scary day. One of the few decorative items I brought with me was the crude American flag that I drew with my crayons to send to Parkland Memorial Hospital when we heard that JFK had been shot (and before it was announced that he had died). My mom had worked as a nurse, and had often encouraged me to draw pictures to send to folks in the hospital. Fortunately, she had saved that drawing and I found it while cleaning out my house early this year in preparation for selling it. Although the quality of the artwork is lacking, the sentiment behind it was the important part. I'm glad to have it here with me.
The last chapter talks about the poignant reactions to Kennedy's death overseas, and mentions that some countries referred to their Peace Corps Volunteers as “Kennedy's children.” The closing paragraph of this book states: “Kennedy said that he got particular satisfaction from the Peace Corps because he felt it was 'the most immediate response that the country has seen to the whole spirit which I tried to suggest in my inaugural.' In the sense that all Volunteers since 1961 have responded to the challenge to 'ask not,' they are all Kennedy's children.” As a Peace Corps Volunteer (as well as a child of the '60s), I like that thought!

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