In his inaugural address three months later, President Kennedy talked of young Americans joining "a grand and global alliance ... to fight tyranny, poverty, disease and war ..." On March 1, 1961, he signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps.
By that summer, the first two groups were off to Ghana and Tanzania. Since that time, 168,000 volunteers have served in 136 different countries. Today, there are more than 6,600 scattered around the globe in 70 nations, with 41 of them coming from the University of Arizona last year.
More than 40 years after its founding, the idealism of the idea is still strong. President Bill Clinton said, "The Peace Corps is a remarkable tradition that emphasizes our country is about more than power and wealth. It is also about the power of our values and the power of a helping hand."
To achieve those aims, three goals were established from the beginning for the Peace Corps: promote a better understanding of Americans throughout the world, educate Americans about other peoples and cultures and get something done on the job.
Following are reminisces from six Tucsonans who have served in the Peace Corps, from an early group back in 1962, to one of the most recent. They represent various snapshots of the experience, but all revolve around one central theme: The years spent in the Peace Corps would immensely influence the later lives of those who volunteered to serve their country and the world.
Going HomeBy Dick Eaton
In May 1962, the day before I graduated from college, a telegram arrived from Sargent Shriver. Mistaking the first name for a military rank, at first I thought I had been drafted into the Army. But, in fact, the message had come from President Kennedy's recent brainchild, the Peace Corps, then directed by Shriver. The telegram directed me to report to Utah the next month to train for the Peace Corps' first mission to Iran.
For most of our group of 40, shoving off for Iran was a voyage to an exotic unknown. But for me, it was more of a return. For nearly two decades, my great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran, had served as a missionary in a Nestorian village in northwestern Iran (an area then called Persia).
My grandmother, who was born in that village, had taught Persian folk songs to my mother when she was a girl; I grew up hearing those same songs. In fact, the village to which I was posted was located not far from that of my ancestors. What is more, on hand at Tehran's airport to greet me and my 40 colleagues were none other than my own parents, who were then living in the Iranian city of Mashad, where my father practiced medicine in the American Hospital.
Can all this be pure coincidence? Who knows? In any event, just as those next two years in Iran had deep antecedents in my family history, they would also have a profound subsequent influence.
For one thing, during my time with the Peace Corps, two other volunteers and I made a month-long "epic" trip to India, traveling overland by train, bus, bullock-cart--most anything that moved. At first the great cities of South Asia--Karachi, Bombay, Hyderabad, Madras, Calcutta, Benares, Delhi, Lahore--seemed utterly unfamiliar.
But gradually, because of to my earlier exposure to Iran, I began to recognize much of what I found in the subcontinent. Persian architectural forms, qawwali music, miniature paintings, the Urdu language, Muslim tomb-cults--all had been refracted through the prism of Iran, brushed with the turquoise patina of Perso-Islamic civilization. After all, how can anyone who has visited Shiraz or Isfahan in Iran view the Taj Mahal without feeling a shock of recognition?
I was fascinated by the deep connections between Persian and Indian cultures, and grew determined to understand the deeper history between these connections. How and when did Persian and Islamic culture diffuse into India? How were both Iran and India altered by their 13 centuries of prolonged, mutual contact? A devotion to solving such riddles is what led me to an academic career that ultimately landed me at the University of Arizona, where I have taught Persian language, Islamic mysticism, Indian history and the history of Muslim societies.
All of this, I suppose, was encoded in that first, bumpy trip, riding on third-class trains from Iran to India, swapping stories with Pathan fellow-travelers, negotiating with Sindhi shop-keepers and Bengali river-boat captains and sipping tea with Afghan villagers.
Dick Eaton is a professor of history at the University of Arizona.
Peruvian PerspectiveBy Gayle Hartmann
On the outside, the men's prison in Arequipa, Peru--where I worked from 1964 to 1966--looked like an old fortified castle. On the inside, it was a cold, foreboding barn-like place. It wasn't cruel or sadistic; it was ruled, instead, by benign neglect.
The vast majority of the prisoners were young men of Quechua origin, that is, they were Indians who spoke little or no Spanish. Most were from the high mountain towns of the Andes who had come down to the 7,000-foot-high city of Arequipa seeking work. Most were in jail for minor crimes such as petty theft, and many had common-law wives and children.
The job I created for myself was to try to find work for the women so they could feed their kids while the fathers were serving their sentences. It was also my job to work with the legal system to try to speed up the trials.
But justice was slow and enforcement was lax. These young guys had no money and didn't speak Spanish, so they were at the bottom of the judicial heap. Their trials were delayed because they knew no one of importance and couldn't pay to move their cases forward. By the time I left Peru, I had convinced two young women from the local university who were studying social work to take my position--a first for middle-class Peruvian women.
The lesson is obvious: A real democracy where everyone gets a fair shake regardless of money, power, connections and language is hard to create and sustain. There is a seemingly innate human tendency for power and money to spiral upward into the hands of a few and for everyone else to be, at best, ignored, or more likely, mistreated. Thus, it is incumbent on government to provide equal opportunity, to regulate and enforce, give a helping hand to those in need, and above all, be fair.
At that time, in the mid 1960s, it was common to see a photograph of President John F. Kennedy in the homes of poor and middle-class Peruvians. He was the symbol of a country where, they believed, there was boundless opportunity, and fair treatment was the norm rather than the exception. As a representative of that country, I was welcomed everywhere.
I think often about the role of America in the world, then and now. Then, we were almost universally looked up to and admired--but how many foreign homes today have a picture of the American president? Now, my friends from Peru and other countries ask me if I'm aware of what my country is up to and, if so, what I am doing about it.
That's a hard question to answer. It is my hope that our country will soon find its way back to the ideals on which it is based and become, once again, a role model for the rest of the world.
Gayle Hartmann is an archaeologist and editor, as well as being active in local politics and land-use issues.
The Heart of DangerBy Susie Morris
Fear is my most treacherous enemy. Its poisonous tentacles try to paralyze me. Growing up in the fearful 1950s, my favorite book was Howard Pease's Heart of Danger. Tod Moran, the third mate on the tramp steamer Araby, was my hero. The title came from a Chinese proverb: "Go straight to the heart of danger, for there you will find safety."
I dreamed of going to the heart of danger but didn't know exactly what to do once I arrived. The Peace Corps taught me. I should respect people of other cultures, learn new skills, try new experiences, practice my skills, and deal with problems as confidently as possible.
The learning started the first night we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1970. Staff members checked us into very modest rooms in a downtown hotel. A few of us wandered outside the hotel to find a lively street scene. A man was cooking fried rice in a wok over a small charcoal fire and selling it to passers-by. We watched in fascination and then asked the staff if it was safe to eat.
We truly believed that street food was extremely dangerous. But we were told that since we were watching it being cooked, and it was obviously very hot, it was probably safe to eat. We ordered our portions, ate our fill of fried rice and went back into our hotel to fall asleep. Nobody got sick.
That's not to say that I haven't gotten sick. I won't tell you about the chicken-foot soup incident. I will tell you that it was comforting to learn that our entire world is blanketed in medicine, pharmacies and doctors.
I also found I could travel with no advance preparation or reservations. My first hike was over the Himalayas. We arrived in Pokara, Nepal, and set off on a 10-day jaunt past Annapurna on our way up to the Plain of Tibet. We ate in teahouses along the way. If we ate dinner at a teahouse. they always let us put our sleeping bags down in the back room for the night. The dinners of cheptai, da, and fried eggs were among the best I've ever had. The scenery was spectacular. I remember it as great fun.
I wore a pair of blue Keds sneakers on that hike. I won't tell you what my feet looked like after I took off the 5-day-old bandages. I will tell you that I learned that you can get to where you are going if you keep putting one foot in front of the other--even if you are in pain.
I spent three years working in public health with Malaysians. They were Malay and Orang Asli from Malaysia, Tamils and Punjabis from India, Singhalese and Ceylon Tamils from Sri Lanka, as well as Straits Chinese. They were Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics and Protestants. They were my friends and co-workers, not people to be feared. Safety came from knowing they are not "those people" but, "our people."
I have lived the rest of my life safely in the heart of that false danger.
Susie Morris has been a local speech pathologist since 1980.
Lessons LearnedBy Sherry Teachnor
You've had a week and a half of language training; here's the neighborhood you're assigned to, now go out and find a family to live with for the next two and a half months."
That was my introduction to Peace Corps training in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in September 1970.
I later learned we were a lot luckier than groups who had trained before us. Towards the end of their training, they were given $5, a compass and a destination to find after hiking their way through the Puerto Rican rain forest for three days.
Through a combination of self-selection and confidence boosting, Peace Corps training prepared me--fresh from college and a year working in the San Francisco Bay Area--to live in a small town in the Dominican Republic, 30 kilometers from the Haitian border. And I did it.
I learned that if you take pains to adapt to the culture you're living in, learn the language the people speak, and be alert to your surroundings, anyone can do it, too.
After being assigned to an agricultural group, I gathered from my training that I would be providing basic "advice" to a group of rural peanut farmers in the Dominican Republic who marketed their products cooperatively.
Did I know anything about peanuts? No.
Agriculture? No; I had been on my grandparents' Michigan farm three times in my life.
But I learned co-op's basic principles well enough to spend the better part of my two years teaching them to the co-op's members so they could adopt them.
Training, however, didn't prepare me for the reality that most of the co-op's members were illiterate, including the treasurer. So I turned my assignment into an adult education project, and became quite an expert in play-acting and making flip charts. The lessons I learned observing others, taking everything in, and then jumping in would come in very handy for me years later when I opened an art gallery.
Towards the end of my term, having developed an adult cooperative education plan, complete with national surveys of cooperative agency staff, I was asked to make a presentation about the plan to the National Cooperative Institute in Santo Domingo, the capital.
I thought I was prepared until I arrived and rose to take the podium. What does one do about two bulky bodyguards standing behind the president of the National Institute? Smile, stand aside and don't hit their weapons with your pointer.
Living and working in an area that was in some ways very different than my own, and in others very similar--at least to the Salinas Valley of the late '60s--I learned that America doesn't have all the answers. We can learn from anyone, anywhere in the world, and when all is said and done, life boils down to morning, afternoon and evening. Some people, some cultures, fill it up with much more activity, goods and trivia than others. But in the final analysis, we each face morning, afternoon and evening with a hope and a wish for life to be good.
Sherry Teachnor is a lawyer and owns a gallery that specializes in Latin American and Caribbean art.
Mixed BlessingBy Janet K. Miller
I was sent to Burkina Faso as a forestry technician in 1982. My assignment was to start a tree nursery, funded by the Wold Bank. There were two coups d'etat during my stay, and each time the World Bank suspended the funding, so I never had a real job. I did occupy myself, though, with some ethnobotany research and a beekeeping project, but I think the biggest impact I had was on the life of my neighbor, Biba, and her family.
Biba was a single mother of 12 children. Three were grown and moved away; four had died in childhood some years before; four girls and a boy lived with her in their tiny house next to mine.
The boy, Siaka, died during my stay.
Biba's husband had abandoned the family; the neighborhood gossips explained he had been seduced by a wealthy, childless witch and was living comfortably in the city. Although Biba's oldest son sent a little money when he could, the family was destitute. Biba was brokenhearted and demoralized by the deaths of her children, the loss of her husband and her poverty.
Biba and I spent most evenings chatting on my porch. We could always hear the sound of drums and balafons, celebrating weddings, circumcisions and funerals.
We had the same conversation over and over. She had once been a prosperous market woman, bringing melons up from Banfora and selling them in Orodara's weekly market at a tidy profit.
I would talk to her about starting up her business again. "I can't," she'd reply. "I'm 38; my strength is gone. Money calls money, and I have no capital."
I argued in favor of the possibility, suggesting she start very small, and grow the business slowly. Why not penny piles of peanuts?
After awhile, she started to sell penny piles of peanuts on our street. From that enterprise she expanded to selling fritters in the weekly market, a business that required more capital.
By the time I left in 1984, Biba had a large table in the marketplace. She was one of a handful of women whose businesses were open everyday. She sold chilies, onions, Maggi cubes, salt, local spices and peanut butter. She was more hopeful. There was so much she wished for her daughters.
Back in the United States, I tried to keep in touch. Biba's letters were all the same: "We are all well. The Bado family greets you. God bless you. We hope you are well." It was impossible to tell how they were doing.
I returned to Burkina in 1987 and was relieved to find Biba and her girls healthy, happy and prospering. Biba had acquired a wood-fired peanut roaster and was manufacturing peanut butter in bulk and wholesaling it to market women.
The girls were in school. Everyone had shoes. But the thing that brought the most pride and joy to Biba's life was that she finally had enough money to pay for her youngest daughter Worokia's clitoridectomy. Biba thanked me for encouraging her in her business ventures.
Janet Miller is an artist with a downtown studio.
Friendship and FamilyBy Lisa Westerbeck
My Peace Corps experience, in Poland from 1999 to 2001), wasn't the stereotypical digging ditches, building houses and teaching agriculture, but working day-to-day in an office, meeting mayors and traveling to different countries. I easily passed as a young Polish woman, until I opened my mouth and tried to speak. My accent is quite good, but Polish grammar is a difficult task for anyone to overcome.
I lived in a small town called Elblag in northeastern Poland, close to the Russian border and the Baltic Sea. I volunteered at a nonprofit organization, Euroregion Baltic, and in my spare time translated brochures for a state park and taught English as a second language to a group of children from a nearby village.
The average workday in Poland is quite different than ours. Most people walk or take public transportation to work. The workday begins at 8 a.m. and ends precisely at 3 p.m. Everyone is on time in the morning because coffee is first on the agenda. This is when information is shared. If you miss coffee, you will not know what is going on. This is inherent in the Polish culture whether you are in an office, school or private company.
After coffee and tea, everyone gets straight to work. If you go to a meeting, you can tell how important you are by what the host offers. It may be cookies or candies, but you are really important if offered cake, or a three-course meal.
After a hard day of work, quality-time is spent with friends and family. Family is most important--not work.
Friendship and "solidarity" are what hold the Poles together. I remember one of the first away-meetings I attended. I was confused and frustrated. Parts of the meeting were productive, and then the group went on an excursion. We competed in skeet shooting, consumed vodka and kielbasa, and danced until 1 a.m. I was amazed, but learned later the purpose of the excursions is to build friendships to help people work together better.
Other meeting excursions included visiting nature preserves, historic churches, castles or involving a hydrofoil to go sightseeing in Kaliningrad, Russia. Even with such extravagant activities, however, work got done.
Poles are truly proud of their towns and cities. Every meeting starts with the host telling a short history of the region. Meetings end with good wishes and farewells until the next meeting.
I will always remember the children and families from the village. When you visit a Polish family, they first feed you to the point where you're about to pop, then send you home with more food. I received chocolate, fruit and yogurt. One day, I received a bag that felt cold and heavy. I waited until I got on the train to look inside. It was a raw chicken! It made my day.
I was sad to leave Poland. The experiences I had have given me a better sense of family and an understanding of people. Peace Corps is two years of your life, and the one thing I learned the most from the Polish people is how to treat others.
Lisa Westerbeck is pursuing a Master's degree in the School of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Arizona.