By Jim Brown, Colombia IV (1962-1964)
The Wild West years of Peace Corps recruiting were 1961 and 1962. An understaffed office in Washington was inundated by thousands of applications. There were delays, cancellations, and inconsistencies, but also spectacular successes. Screening was lax in some ways, demanding in others. Yet, the process somehow worked. By early 1963, 7,300 volunteers were at work 44 countries.
Recruiting volunteers for Colombia IV (1962-64) was particularly challenging. Because they were to be the first Peace Corps group assigned to teach at the university level, every person had to have at least a BA, BS, or equivalent degree, as well as skills for teaching English or physical education.
Those requirements narrowed the field of applicants during a period in which, according to some reports, only one in seven of those who applied eventually served in the Peace Corps. Five out of six invited to train qualified for service.
Here are the stories of how 19 volunteers were recruited (or self-recruited). They reflect the influence of Kennedy, a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to serve—attitudes that were common among young Americans during the early 1960s.
1. One of the Showgirls at the Flamingo Came Running into the Room
“I graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1960 and traveled around the country in my beat-up Volkswagen for a couple of years. I stopped by my mom’s home in Aurora, Illinois, and while I was there filled out an application for the Peace Corps at DePaul University. My next stop was in Las Vegas, where I got a job as a room service waiter at the Flamingo Hotel. The showgirls, the dancers, and the wait staff all ate together in a dining hall. I was eating dinner one night when one of the showgirls came running into the room, looking for me. ‘Don, your mother just called and said Washington wanted to talk to you about joining the Peace Corps.’ They were so excited for me they took up a collection and gave me a watch. I drove back to Aurora and saw the invitation to train for a project in Colombia. I gave my car to my cousin, got on a plane, and flew to El Paso.”
— Don Curry (PE/Coaching)
2. Sent the Marine Corps Instead of the Peace Corps
“My Peace Corps adventure began during my senior year at Slippery Rock State. My older brother had been killed in Korea, so a military career was out of the question. I wanted to do something exciting and patriotic. There was a recruiter from the Peace Corps scheduled to talk that evening in the library. I attended the meeting, but very few others were there. I completed a questionnaire that included my interest, experience, training, etc. The recruiter submitted my paperwork, and I received an invitation to train for a group headed for Thailand. I accepted the invitation, but there was significant political unrest in the country. They sent the Marine Corps rather than the Peace Corps. Next, I received the invitation to train for Colombia IV. So I graduated from Slippery Rock that spring and left for El Paso in October 1962. For the next two years, I had the most influential experience of my life (other than my marriage to Mary Layman) with the most influential group of individuals I have ever known.”
— Dave Bohnke (PE/Coaching)
3. I Was Desperate
“I was desperate. It was the summer of 1962 and I was home in Paw Paw, Michigan, after my second year of teaching English in Connecticut. I read a magazine article about a woman from Grand Junction, Colorado, who was in the Peace Corps in India. It was interesting. It was out of the country. It was not ordinary. What did I have to lose? I had pretty much been around the same kind of people all of my life, and I thought surely there had to be more interesting people in the world. And, by god, I found them in Colombia IV.”
— Sue Farrington (English)
4. Encouraged by William Sloane Coffin
“My first recollection of Peace Corps came from my group leader during a trip to West Africa in the summer of 1960. He was William Sloane Coffin, then the chaplain at Yale who later established the Peace Corps camps in Puerto Rico. (Coffin was a internationally-known civil rights and peace movement activist.) I went to Africa again in the summer of 1961 and when I returned, I went to see Bill in New Haven. He encouraged me to check out Peace Corps. I did and was invited to be in a program in the Philippines, but I wanted to work on my Spanish and held off until Colombia IV came along.”
— Rudy Salinas (PE/Coaching)
5. CIA or Peace Corps? No Contest
“I was a government major at Smith College and when thinking about a future career, I wanted a job that would include travel abroad. Naively, I applied for the Peace Corps and the CIA. The CIA accepted me first, so I started there, but about a year later the Peace Corps accepted me and I said, “yes!” I had read The Ugly American and believed that Kennedy had found the solution. I recall the Peace Corps asking questions about where we would like to serve or not serve. I remember saying that I was intolerant of hot weather and that I had studied Spanish. So when they offered me a place in Colombia IV, it was no contest. I felt that I had won the lottery and signed up immediately. Too bad that my previous work history made it into print and cancelled my actual service in Colombia, but I have always had the best memories of the great group of friends from training in El Paso.”
— Deb Matthews (English, reassigned Costa Rica)
6. Kevin, Part 1
I graduated from the University of Denver with a BA degree, a certificate to teach physical education in Colorado, and a student membership in the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation. I had no clue what I would do next. Maybe go back to my home town and work in the post office.
In April of ‘62, an article in the AAHPER magazine said the organization was sponsoring a Peace Corps project for teachers and coaches. Mildly interested, my mother had campaigned for Kennedy and had met him on a number of occasions at various Democratic events. I had heard about Kennedy’s proposed Peace Corps and sent a letter expressing interest. Two weeks later, I received and completed an application for Peace Corps.
Then, about three weeks later, my father telephones me. Telephones me!! Never did he telephone me. Long distance phone calls were expensive. Occasionally, he would write newsy letters and maybe insert $20 or $40, if he had a good day at the track.
One of dad’s golfing partners happened to be an FBI agent. He had informed Daddio that the FBI was doing a background check on me. The proverbial poop hit the fan belt. Peace Corps was not a good idea. I needed to reconsider. Definitely, Peace Corps was not an option. Better to look for anything else. It didn’t matter that my mom was overjoyed that I would consider or be considered for the Peace Corps.
To be continued….
— Kevin Dixon (PE/Coaching)
7 . Better Than High School Latin
“I had just graduated with a teaching certificate from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when President Kennedy announced the PeaceCorps. I loved the idea, and it definitely sounded more exciting thanteaching high school Latin. In my application, I requested SouthAmerica and indicated the sports in which I had participated. Tomy delight, I was immediately selected for Colombia IV.”
— Tom Hillary (PE/Coaching)
8. Waited….and Waited….and Waited
“I read a newspaper article about this new program and was interested but was also looking at the American Friends Service Committee. I got the Peace Corps application and later learned that I was among its first 500 applicants. Then I waited … and waited … and waited. I tried to contact the Peace Corps by mail several times, then by phone several times. They were very disorganized, trying to get programs launched, and they kept putting me off. I told them that I really needed to learn something soon. I had another job and owed it to my employer to let them know if I’d be with them in the coming year. Finally, I told my boss that I’d be back since the Peace Corps had told me nothing specific. Soon after that, the Peace Corps wrote and invited me to enter a program in the Philippines. Actually, I was glad to be able to say that I couldn’t accept because of my job situation. But I asked them to keep my app on file, ideally for something in Latin America. Several months later they came back with an invitation to go into training for Colombia IV. Throughout this whole process of a year and a half, I never spoke in person to anyone from the government.”
— Tom Tollman (English)
9. Easy, Straightforward
“I graduated from Randolph-Macon in June 1962 and was looking for work. I was actually doing construction work but not sure what I wanted to do. I had some teaching offers, but I thought I wanted something more adventuresome. I liked what I understood the Peace Corps was going to do. My brother gave me a postcard application, which I mailed in. A couple of weeks later I heard back from them. I was assigned to report to Texas Western to begin training for Colombia IV. Looking back, all of it was easy and straightforward.”
— Gale Gibson (PE/Coaching)
10. Unsure About Next Steps
“I had heard about the Peace Corps and took its application exam in the spring of my fourth year of college, an impulse that I marvel at in retrospect. I was very unsure about next steps in life, particularly since I left the University of Michigan three credits shy of a degree (information I did not trouble my parents with). Months later, while working at a civil service job as a file clerk in lower Manhattan, I got an offer from the Peace Corps for a position in Colombia. I knew Colombia was in South America and that was about it. Once in Colombia, I wrote a paper about Henry James and completed my college courses. The world cut you some slack in those days.”
— Dan Friedman (English)
11. Not my Plan
“In the spring of my senior year at Lewis and Clark College, there was a table set up along a walkway at the college with the Peace Corps recruiter. That had not been my plan, but since I didn’t have a plan, I filled out the application. During the summer, I got notice that I was accepted for a YMCA program in Peru. Due to political issues, the project was cancelled. Later, I was notified of the Colombia project.”
— Bob Bergstrom (PE/Coaching)
12. Telegram from Shriver
“Kennedy had come to Cal in 1961. I remember really being excited by the thought of being part of his “Peace Corps,” but I honestly didn’t know if women were accepted. I sent an application in the spring of my senior year and went ahead with plans to teach in a two-room schoolhouse in June Lake, CA. I’d settled in with a newly acquired kitten, so when the telegram from Shriver arrived saying I had been accepted to train for teaching in Colombia, I was concerned about leaving my school and my cat. The other teacher was a big fan of Kennedy and urged me to go for it. A young woman was thrilled to take my place and my cat, and she was there in a heartbeat. At that point, I wasn’t really sure what I had done but hoped for the best. Within a couple of weeks I was on a plane from LA to El Paso.”
— Ruth Ann Gieser (English)
13. Launched my Career
“When President Kennedy announced the Peace Corps initiative, I was at Notre Dame taking some business courses. During that semester, my father, a Kennedy supporter, suggested that I look into applying. I found the prospect of living abroad for a couple of years interesting and exciting. I applied to the Peace Corps and several months later was invited to join the Colombia IV group. Before I knew it, I was in El Paso at Texas Western. The Peace Corps experience launched my international education career. It was a fabulous growth experience for me.”
— Michael Haviland (PE/Coaching)
14. Four Countries: Your Call
“My first contact with the Peace Corps concept was reading The Ugly American. I liked the idea of adventure and service it presented. My enthusiasm grew when then Senator Kennedy offered it as a potential program during the 1960 US presidential campaign. In early 1962, I signed up to take the test. The U.S. history element seemed easy; language aptitude was more difficult. Within a month I received a telegram stating I was accepted. My roommate and I had a milkshake to celebrate—a well spent $.25. Then began the waiting period. Fortunately, Ray Ciszek, my track coach at Western Washington State, took a job with AAHPER to work on Peace Corps projects. He contacted me with an offer of four possible countries—Colombia, Cote Ivoire, Senegal, and Morocco. Having nothing more than a vague idea of their location, I went to the encyclopedia for more information. Colombia seemed like the right choice, and Spanish was a better option for me than French. I spent the summer taking a course for graduation from Western and building a beach house for my parents. The wait on the Peace Corps kept getting longer. Finally, my completion of the house roughly coincided with the Peace Corps directing me to report to El Paso. It would be my first trip on an airplane.”
— Norm Olsen (PE/Coaching)
15. Kevin, Part 2
“…. The following week, my basketball coach summoned me to his office. Expecting the worst, I already knew I was three credits short for June graduation and was planning to go to summer school to complete my requirements. My scholarship would not cover room and board.
The coach wanted to know what kind of trouble I was in, as the FBI was on campus checking on me. I told him the only thing I knew was I had applied for the Peace Corps. Whew! He thought this was fantastic and shared with me his experiences playing and teaching outside the USA.
Shortly, I was accepted into a program for Peru. Great! The Denver U soccer team players from Peru filled me in on the country, complete with family phone numbers and people I should look up. Two weeks later that program was cancelled.
In July, I finished summer school and received the invitation to train at Texas Western.”
— Kevin Dixon (PE/Coaching)
16. While Cleaning Dishes at a Coffee House….
“During my senior year at Springfield College, I was cleaning dishes at a coffee house near the campus. One of the other college students working there had just been accepted into the Peace Corps for a group going to a country in Africa. We talked about the challenges of volunteering. It sounded like something I might do, so I began a very comprehensive application process. At one point, I got a phone call from the Peace Corps asking if I had played college basketball, which I hadn’t. They were looking for basketball coaches to go to countries in Africa prior to the upcoming Olympics. Upon returning from a camping trip to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, I got word of my acceptance to Colombia IV. It was August 1962, and we reported to El Paso in October.
— Bob Willey (PE/Coaching)
17. Not Recruited
First, I was not recruited. When JFK announced his intention to form the volunteer organization, I decided I would join. My friends were off to graduate school or military careers. Not for me. I was tired of studying and wanted nothing do with the military, a path followed by my father and my stepfather. I worked through my senior year to earn money for a trip back to Spain and Europe after graduation. Before that, I took a test given by Peace Corps, then bought a book titled Teach Yourself Swahili. I assumed the PC would be working in Africa. At the end of my vacation, I dropped by American Express and found a letter inviting me to join a group of English teachers headed to Colombia. Colombia? I wrote to accept and headed back home to the States. My experiences in Japan (military stepdad) and Spain (junior year at University of Madrid) taught me that I was at my happiest when I was a foreigner. Teaching? That was my dream, complete with pipe and tweed jacket. Next step, a plane trip from Montgomery, Alabama, to El Paso.
— Leland Northam (English)
18. A High Point of my Life
“In my senior year of college I read The Ugly American, and one story in it affected me deeply. It was how an ordinary American had a simple idea that significantly improved the lives of those in the country where she was living. I wanted to do something similar. When President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, I applied immediately. My 3+ years in Colombia were, in many ways, the high point of my life.”
— Chris Day (PE/Coaching)
[Chris was asked to stay in Colombia an extra year and work on a new project. He was named National Director of the Literacy Project, which was based on the Laubach Literacy Method, a four-level process that has taught millions of adults to read.]
19. Like Being Signed by the Yankees
“I was a senior at Baylor majoring in sociology, mostly because it required only six hours of math. I had no idea about what I wanted to do with my life, but at 22 a career related to physical education or sports was appearing to be a more reasonable path than graduate studies in sociology. During the spring semester, I stopped by a Peace Corps recruiting table in the Student Union building. The recruiter told me that serving in the Peace Corps would be the equivalent of getting a master’s degree. That sounded like a stretch, but I completed an application, mailed it in, and forgot about it. Didn’t even tell my parents. They called one day and said an FBI agent was on our street in Lake Charles, LA, asking our neighbors about me regarding something called the Peace Corps. On Saturday, August 11, 1962, I received a special delivery letter. It was from Sargent Shriver, and I still have it. For me, it was like being signed by the Yankees to play center field.” — “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play.”
— Jim Brown (PE/Coaching)
20. “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do ….”
“I was an economics and Latin American studies major at Stanford and wanted to serve the U.S. The military was an option, but I loved JFK. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.’ For me, it was the Peace Corps. Sure worked out.”
— Mike Town (PE/Coaching)