In October of 1960 when John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency, he spoke after midnight on the campus of the University of Michigan and mentioned the idea of a Peace Corps. I was one of the first students to be swept up by his challenge to go to Asia, Africa, and Latin America and contribute part of our lives to our country.
I had never thought of leaving my country before. I would never have thought of leaving my state. Now I wanted to be part of the New Frontier. I wanted to do something for my country.
In the summer of 1962, I went to Washington to train with the first group of Volunteers to Ethiopia. Towards the end of training we went to meet President Kennedy in the Rose Garden.
After a few words of welcome, he stepped down to shake hands and wish us well. And as he turned to leave he stopped and asked us to write, to tell him how it was going. And then he grinned and added, “But no postcards,” referring to the famous postcard sent to a friend at home by a woman Volunteer in Nigeria in 1961. It was a postcard that spoke honestly about conditions in Africa and almost brought an end to the Peace Corps before Volunteers had a chance to prove their worth. Kennedy’s postcard reference showed not only his ironic wit, but also his full awareness of what his new initiative, the Peace Corps, was doing around the world.
Those of us who left the White House lawn and went into Africa are older now than Kennedy was on that summer afternoon. Time and tragedy have touched us all. But fate has an odd way of balancing the scales.
The Peace Corps was not considered the bold new stroke of the New Frontier. Yet it is the Peace Corps that is the shining memory of those thousand days of Camelot.
Our service overseas was often silent and often went unheralded. Some of the bridges we built do not still stand, a few of the schools where we taught are now closed, and many of the people we organized did not stay together. We were seldom as successful as we had hoped.
But the Peace Corps took us out of America and taught us to be citizens of the world. Because of the Peace Corps, all of us are forever changed.
And we were not the only ones changed.
In the mountains of Ethiopia, shortly after John F. Kennedy’s death, I stopped my Land Rover to pick up an old man and give him a lift across the high plateau. On the side door he read the Peace Corps name, written in Amharic script as Yesalaam Guad. It meant Messenger of Peace.
I nodded and told him, “Yes, Yesalaam Guad. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.” He asked me then if I had known President Kennedy, and I told him how I had once shaken his hand on the White House lawn.
For a moment he looked out across the flat brown land at the distant acacia trees and small tukul villages we were passing, and then he grinned and seized my hand and shook it, shouting over the roar of the Land Rover engine, “Yesalaam Guad. Yesalaam Guad.”
He was shaking the hand that had shaken the hand of John F. Kennedy.
We two, there on the highlands of Africa, as far away as one could possibly be from Washington and the White House Rose Garden, shared a moment, and were connected by the death of a martyred president and his enduring legacy, the Peace Corps.