A police escort with sirens blaring led our dozen Peace Corps buses in one long continuous caravan through every downtown light in Washington, D.C. It was high noon in the District the summer of 1962, less than a year after the famous postcard dropped by a PCV had been found on the Ibadan campus that almost doomed the Peace Corps and we–the 300 Ethiopia-bound Peace Corps Trainees at Georgetown University–were on our way to meet John F. Kennedy at the White House.
There were other Peace Corps Trainees as well meeting the President that afternoon. Peace Corps Trainees at Howard, American, Catholic, George Washington universities, and the University of Maryland, over 600 in all, gathered in the August heat and humidity on the great lawn below the Truman Balcony.
Arriving at the White House, I walked with the others up the slope with the Washington Monument behind me and the White House on the slight rise ahead, thinking how small the building was, no bigger than the country club where I had spent my teenage years as a caddie.
I thought, too, of how lean Kennedy looked, standing at a raised podium with his one hand caught in the pocket of his dark suit jacket as he said, “From Georgetown University, 307 secondary school teachers for Ethiopia.” He looked up from his notes and asked, “Perhaps those of you going to Ethiopia could hold up your hands.”
We cheered, thrilled at being recognized by JFK.
We were the Peace Corps, the shiny new creation that Kennedy had proposed in the last days of the 1960 presidential campaign, his experiment in international development that others had called a wacky and dangerous idea. The Daughters of the American Revolution warned of a “yearly drain” of “brains and brawn for the benefit of backward, underdeveloped countries.” Former President Eisenhower declared it a “juvenile experiment,” and Richard Nixon said it was another form of “draft evasion.” The following year, in 1963, Time magazine noted in a cover story that the Peace Corps was “the greatest single success the Kennedy administration had produced.”
And now we were at the White House and John F. Kennedy was saying, “I hope that you will regard this Peace Corps tour as the first installment in a long life of service, as the most exciting career in the most exciting time, and that is serving this country in the sixties and the seventies.”
Looking again at the old photographs taken that afternoon, I see the President smiling down at the group of young women in bright flowery dresses, and young men with short haircuts, white shirts, narrow ties, and serious dark suits.
“The White House,” Kennedy said, summing up, “belongs to all the people–but I think it particularly belongs to you.”
Kennedy ended his remarks and instead of returning to the White House stepped from the podium and walked down the slope and along the line of Trainees to shake our hands. He asked us where we were going in the Peace Corps and wished us good luck. Finally he stopped and said, “Well, I guess I better get back to work.” He brushed back his hair in that famous gesture we all came to cherish and nodding goodbye walked a few yards towards the Oval Office, but stopped once more and glancing around raised his voice and told us to write, to tell him how it was going. He nodded goodbye, slipped his hand into the jacket pocket, and then, almost as an afterthought, he smiled wryly and added, “But no postcards.”