R.I. volunteers recall Peace Corps on its 50th anniversary

September 20th, 2011 by admin

The Providence Journal
September 18, 2011
By Donita Naylor
Journal Staff Writer

Nanci Martin (Smith), right, served in Buea, West Cameroon, in 1964. On the left is Mrs. Musako, head senior tutor at the Baptist Teacher Training College, and her children.

In 1959, Tom Wilson drove his Vespa back to college in Indiana from his summer job in a national park in California.

Two summers later, the Lincoln, R.I., native made the same trip in reverse, with his new wife, Anne, on the back of the scooter.

“We had to push it up the Rockies,” he recalled recently by way of telling how he and Anne came to join the Peace Corps in 1961. Wilson, now 73, lives in Warwick. The federal agency that President John F. Kennedy created to give Americans and people in developing countries a chance to work together and get to know each other is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week with events in Washington, D.C., and around the globe.

Kennedy had stopped at the couple’s campus, Earlham College in Indiana, during his run for president the year before. And they’d heard about his speech at the University of Michigan, when — with 5,000 students cheering at 2 a.m. — he issued an impromptu challenge from the steps of the student union, calling on students to “contribute part of your life to this country” to help solve “the problems that press upon the United States.”

In January, Tom and Anne Wilson were in Washington visiting Anne’s parents, while Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen drafted Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inauguration speech. The Wilsons caught a ride back to Earlham with Sorensen’s wife, who was going to see her sister, the wife of an Earlham history professor.

From D.C. to Indiana, Tom Wilson remembers, “We did nothing but talk about the Peace Corps.”

That semester, the Wilsons drove their scooter to Ohio to take one of the first Peace Corps entrance exams. Their applications were in the first 11,000 that Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver reported having received by mid-June.

By then, via scooter and helicopter, the Wilsons had reached their summer job in California, a fire tower at 10,000 feet in King’s Canyon National Park with Ansel Adams views.

“The call came through on the park radio that President Kennedy wanted to talk to us, which wasn’t at all true,” he said. “It was the Peace Corps.”

The new agency needed to know if the Wilsons wanted to be in the first group of volunteers sent overseas.

“We said no, we wanted to stay in our fire tower.”

Another Rhode Islander, Frank Krajewski of Woonsocket, now 72 and living in Richmond, was in the first group sent to the Philippines in 1961. He’ll be in Washington this week attending some of the 50th anniversary activities, which culminate in a black-tie (or native-dress) gala on Saturday, with “Hardball” host Chris Matthews as emcee.

As one of the first wave of volunteers, “We’re having a lot of our own activities,” said Krajewski, who taught at the University of Nevada for 20 years and now does professional development for teachers at Rhode Island College. Out of 128 volunteers who went in 1961, “there are about 80 of us left.”

Krajewski’s group trained at Penn State, he said, then had to go home because Congress hadn’t yet authorized the Peace Corps. Finally, letters arrived with plane tickets to San Francisco, from there they were flown to the Philippines — the men on one plane, which stopped at every island, and the women on another. “The girls left a day later and landed the same time we did.”

Krajewski volunteered for a hardship assignment, on a remote island where he lived on the beach in a hut with a thatch roof and bamboo floor. He worked in an elementary school in the morning and a high school in the afternoon.

“They trained us, but the training was almost irrelevant to what we were going to do,” he said.

“We were kind of the guinea pigs. We had to create our own jobs.”

After their summer in the fire tower, Tom and Anne Wilson drove to Washington, this time in a VW panel truck, to Peace Corps headquarters. “They signed us up for Philippines III.”

Training started Dec. 27, 1961, and in February of 1962 they became the third wave of volunteers helping Filipino teachers improve their teaching of English and science. “My wife worked in the main school, in Daran,” Tom Wilson recalled, “and I paddled a boat to another village a mile away.”

Life in the Philippines wasn’t like life back home. He remembers being late one morning, paddling to his school in the heat of the day and arriving just in time for lunch and the siesta on his bamboo mat at the head teacher’s house. “I woke up in time to paddle home.”

And he recalls a morning when “I had to go down to deliver a document to the ferry boat that left at 5 in the morning.” He described the quiet road, the luminous water and the company of Tex, a dog belonging to one of the priests who lived next to the Americans.

Near the municipal building, “Tex took off, chasing a goat. A security guard at City Hall said, ‘He can’t do that, that’s the goat of the judge.’ I said, ‘That’s the dog of the priest,’ ” The guard weighed the social complexities. “You mean the dog of the priest bit the goat of the judge?” It was too much. “He just walked away. It blew his mind.”

And as idealistic young Americans ready to change the world, the volunteers learned quickly “how difficult real change is.”

Getting an idea or a project squashed, Wilson said, “made you more patient. You learned to watch and take advantage of opportunities instead of just having grand schemes.”

And working in a different culture, he said, “gives you an observing edge.” Outside your own culture, “you had to pay much more attention” — to grasp how things get done, “to learn quickly what this person is like,” to hear what people are really saying.

The skills worked well at home, too.

Back in Washington, he and other Peace Corps veterans turned around a school for inner-city youth. In Chicago, he helped invent a “school without walls.” He became a pioneer in education reform.

When he returned to Rhode Island with his second wife, Leslie Oh, to whom he has been married 26 years, he used the same skills to study the British system of evaluating schools. He helped develop the state’s SALT, or School Accountability for Learning and Teaching, program, and now he helps accrediting agencies improve how they evaluate schools.

“There’s no question that for me, it was one of these root experiences that really changed my life,” Wilson says now. “It’s had a lot to do with how I think about what’s good and what’s true.

“It really does have an idealism to it, an American idealism. It’s really a good thing to go try and really help somebody, even though you screw up. We felt really solid that we were doing something, and what we were doing was very American at its heart.”

Kennedy had hoped that men and women “doing the same work, eating the same food and speaking the same language” as those they helped would be a “source of satisfaction to Americans and a contribution to world peace.”

Nanci Martin was a senior at the University of Connecticut when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. She and a group of friends took the Peace Corps test in response.

In June of ’64, she started training and by September, she was one of about 70 volunteers in the western part of the African nation of Cameroon. She was stationed in Buea, which had only a few buildings: a post office, a prison, a large hotel, the Buea Mountain Club, the prime minister’s palace and the Baptist Teacher Training College, where she worked alongside Baptist missionaries and African educators.

Students who wore uniforms to school came from families that still wore loincloths, she said. She remembers girls spending whole Saturdays plaiting their hair in spectacular designs, like those that only recently became popular in the United States.

“We shared a Jeep with four other stations to allow us to get groceries at Victoria,” she said, and once the gas tank sprang a leak. “We came up with the idea to chew lots of gum and stuff it in the hole in the tank until we could reach help.”

Now Nanci Martin Smith, she lives in Portsmouth with her husband, a retired Navy officer, and keeps in touch with her friends in Cameroon. She still volunteers. She co-manages the thrift shop at the Navy base and serves on Portsmouth committees and the juvenile hearing board. She and her husband sponsor Cameroonian naval officers when they come to the Naval War College and keep in touch after they go home.

She helps support a women’s group that one officer’s mother started “way out in the bush,” and she collects books for the group. The Peace Corps gave her confidence and started her on a lifetime of service.

“It hasn’t stopped,” she said. “It just keeps going.”

On Oct. 25, the Rhode Island Returned Peace Corps Volunteers will walk on the South County Bike Path to honor those who died in service. The walk starts at 11 a.m. at the Kingston Amtrak station on Route 138.

NOTABLEThey also served


Lillian Carter (India, ’66). President Jimmy Carter’s mother was a volunteer at the age of 68. An award in her name is given each year to recognize an outstanding volunteer older than 50.

Christopher Dodd (Monción, Dominican Republic, ‘66-’68). U.S. senator, Connecticut.

Chris Matthews (Swaziland, ‘68-70). Host, NBC’s “Hardball.”

Jim and Jessica Doyle (Tunisia, ’67-’69). Former governor and first lady of Wisconsin.

Samuel Gillespie III (Kenya, ‘67-‘69). Senior vice president, Exxon Mobil.

Robert Haas, (Ivory Coast, ‘64-‘66). Chairman of board, Levi Strauss.

Edward Dolby (India, ’66-‘68). Director, Family Dollar Stores.

Reed Hastings (Swaziland, ‘83-‘85). Founder, CEO of Netflix.

Michael McCaskey (Togo, ‘62-‘64). Chairman of board, Chicago Bears.

Priscilla and Thomas Wrubel (Liberia, ‘61-‘63). Founders of the Nature Company.


0 Responses to “R.I. volunteers recall Peace Corps on its 50th anniversary”

  1. No Comments

Leave a Reply

You must login to post a comment.