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by Brenda Brown Schoonover
Former Peace Corps Volunteer,
Philippines Group One (1961-1963)

Since his death on January 18, 2011 at the age of 95, a great deal has been written and spoken about Robert Sargent Shriver, an exemplary American who had an incredible life dedicated to civil rights and international peace-building. Sargent Shriver died a little more than a month short of March 1, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Corps Act.  Over the course of this year there will be numerous celebrations marking the birth, success and endurance of the Peace Corps. Along with those will be many more tributes to Robert Sargent Shriver (“Sarge”) for other than President John F. Kennedy, himself, Sarge most symbolizes the Peace Corps, Shriver was not only its first Director, but also one of founding fathers and one of the chief architects who put the organization together in six months.

On March 1, 2011, there were a number of local Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) 50th birthday parties celebrating the signing of the Peace Corps Act in 1961. The idea of the house parties sprang from the National Peace Corps Association, which aimed for 500 parties and reported 740 such events. For example about 25 people gathered in my town in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There will be birthday events throughout the year with numerous large programs in Washington in September. It will be impossible to recognize the Peace Corps’ 50th milestone without continuing to  honor the life and deeds of Robert Sargent Shriver, who during his tenure from 1961 to 1966 put the agency on solid footing, which has stood the test of time for half a century.

Robert Sargent Shriver, known as Sarge since childhood, was a man of many accomplishments with an outstanding career in public and international service. In the late 1950s, as Head of Chicago’s School Board and the Catholic Interracial Council, Shriver led successful efforts to integrate Chicago’s public and parochial schools.  In addition to being the first Director of President John F. Kennedy’s creation, the Peace Corps, under the Johnson Administration, Shriver was Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity; helped establish the War on Poverty Program, the Job Corps, VISTA and Head Start, the Community Action Program, Legal Services to the Poor and Foster Grandparents. He was Ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970 and Vice Presidential candidate in  George McGovern’s unsuccessful run for President in 1972. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shriver was Chairman of the Board of Special Olympics International, advocating against violence and discrimination directed at the intellectually disabled.

As a loyal former Peace Corps Volunteer, since my 1961 two-year Peace Corps assignment in the first group to arrive in the Philippines, over the years, I have tried to attend historical Peace Corps marker anniversary celebrations: the 10th, 25th, 40th etc. In addition,  since we have gotten older, my close-knit Philippines, Group One has held mini-conferences every two years. Starting with Chicago 2003, we have since met in Toronto, Boston and Pasadena, California.

I want to turn the clock back to 1986 and reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps because of all of the celebrations, to date, the most memorable were those five days in September in the nation’s capital in which Sargent Shriver played a prominent role.

Peace Corps Director Loret Ruppe and Former Volunteers Laying a Wreath at President Kennedy’s Grave Site (September 21, 1986)

The 25th Anniversary of the Conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff was held from September 18 to 22, 1986 with Monday, September 22 devoted to the first 300 volunteers. From start to finish, it was a particularly moving experience. Loret Rupee, then Director of the Peace Corps under the Reagan Administration and Sargent Shriver appeared to be co-hosts, a dynamic duo who displayed mutual admiration and respect for each other and a great love of the Peace Corps. The Washington Post reported that Ruppe is fond of saying that she can “still see the same stars that Sargent Shriver saw in the eyes of young people in America.”

Conference activities began on Thursday evening with a congressional reception and informal country reunions. Friday’s main events were held in a pavilion on the Mall, under a huge white tent, erected for the conference — the largest ever on the premises. The day’s keynote speaker was the recently elected President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, who wore her signature color yellow. I was proud to be among the more than 4000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), staff, family members and friends joining those who had served in the Philippines. For the occasion and in honor of President Aquino, former volunteers who had served there wore yellow shirts with the word, “Philippines” written across the front, creating a wave of yellow in a section of the pavilion. Many also wore “I love Cory” buttons. Aquino, elected by the People Power Movement, who had pushed long-term stronghold leader, Ferdinand Marcos, from power in less than three years after her opposition-leader husband had been assassinated was an appealing symbol of hope of democracy reclaimed in the Philippines. She was the first female president of her country and first head of state to honor the Peace Corps at one of its conferences in the U.S. Her presence was especially fitting given the fact that the Philippines was one of the oldest Peace Corps programs and by far the largest.  From the time of the arrival of our group of 128 on October 12, 1961 to September 1986, the Philippines had hosted 7,070 volunteers.

Overall, by the 25th anniversary, more that 100,000 volunteers had served in the Peace Corps in 92 nations. That year, 1986, there were 6000 posted in 62 countries and the agency’s budget was $128 million.

Director Rupee closed Friday morning’s session with, “You Volunteers are what the anniversary is all about. You are carrying the torch lit by President Kennedy 25 years ago… You are the guardians of that torch and must pass it on to those who serve after you. I know you will hold it high and keep it burning bright.”

Saturday opened with a speech by Oumarou Garba Youssoufou, Ambassador and Executive Secretary of the Organization of African Unity to the United Nation followed by a number of panels on “Opportunities for Service, Where Should RPCVs Go from Here?”. Panelists included an impressive array of notable former P.C. Volunteers: Senator Christopher Dodd; Oklahoma State Senator Roger Randel; USAID Director, M. Peter McPherson and Mike McCaskey, President of the Chicago Bears,  After the “Sargent Shriver Awards” Ceremony, Shriver gave his speech, which I will address later in this text. In the evening, there were country-of-service receptions hosted by individual embassies. The Embassy of the Philippines put on a marvelous traditional fiesta showing true Filipino gracious hospitality. We felt very much at home.

Sunday started with the spectacular commemorative walk from the Lincoln Memorial across the Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. The bridge had been closed to vehicle traffic for the occasion. Imagine several thousand joyous people on foot with a few on walkers and in wheelchairs making their way across the Memorial Bridge on a beautiful sunny fall day. It was a wonderful sight to see the long line of celebrants grouped in alphabetical order according to their country of assignment, carrying flags of host countries and singing their national anthems. The last were leaving the Lincoln Memorial by the time the first arrived at the Cemetery entrance.

First the participants paid homage to President John F. Kennedy at his gravesite. Director Loret Rupee and two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who had served in Thailand from 1961-1964, laid a wreath that merely said “Thank You” to President Kennedy for his brilliant creation, the Peace Corps.

Our final destination was the National Cemetery‘s white marble amphitheater, which was circled with American flags, where we held the memorial service honoring the 199 volunteers who had died in service to the Peace Corps over its 25-year existence. The first Deputy Peace Corps Director, Bill Moyers officiated at the service. The choir was from Morgan State University of Baltimore, my alma mater. Directors Rupee and Shriver presented a single yellow rose to a family member of each of the 199 deceased Peace Corps Volunteers.  The spokesperson for the families was Gordon Radley, a RPCV from Malawi, whose brother, Laurence and Volunteer David Crozier were the first to die in the service in 1962 in a plane crash in Columbia.  I thought of fellow Philippines volunteer in our group, David Mulholland, who also died in 1962 of an illness, the third on the list of 199 to die in service.

Gordon Radley said, “Until now our grief has been largely a private matter shared with our separate families and communities. But as I stand here today, at our National Cemetery and in front of my fellow Volunteers, I realize that my brother and all the brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who have given their lives to the Peace Corps service belong not only to our families, but to our greater Peace Corps family and to our nation as a whole.”

On Sunday evening, there was a gala concert at the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra saluted the Peace Corps. The master of ceremonies was Harry Belafonte, a member of the first Peace Corps Advisory Council who told his audience, “You are all very special to me and the world.”  Then Belafonte sang “Try to Remember that Kind of September” and “Matilda, Matilda”, which got the house rocking.  The evening ended with the Washington International Children’s Choir leading in “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me,” which inspired everyone in the hall to stand, link hands, join in the singing and sway to the music. The following day, The Washington Post said of the occasion, “Bottle last night, export it and there’ll be no war.”

By Monday, the Conference had officially ended except for the day devoted to the first 300 Peace Corps Volunteer. Again I was proud to be among those who took that initial plunge. Loret Rupee hosted breakfast and Sargent Shriver followed by the group planting a Peace Tree at the National Arboretum. Lastly, there was a Congressional Luncheon at the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Peace Corps’ 25th Anniversary Foundation. Vice President George Bush was the guest speaker and more than 10 senators and congressmen joined the charter-member volunteers and their family members.

To me, the most moving part of Monday’s agenda was when Senator Ted Kennedy took the podium at lunch. Nearing the end of his remarks, he affectionately looked out on his audience and for a moment he faltered as he ended by saying he knew how proud his brother Jack would be. One of the Volunteers from my group who was near the Senator reached out and took his hand. The late Senator is another national hero who died short of seeing the Peace Corps reach its fiftieth For certain, he would have been even prouder of his brother’s enduring miracle.

Sargent Shriver’s Speech, “The Challenge” Saturday, September 20, 1986

From Thursday to Monday, the RPCVs had been honored by a number impressive personage: a head of state, an American President’s daughter, legislatures, agency directors, the Deputy Secretary of State, ambassadors and numerous celebrities. But, the presence of Sargent Shriver remained the core to the September celebrations. It was such an honor having Sarge there each day of the conference, sharing his wisdom and sense of history and true to his nature, incredibly open and accessible to the Volunteers and other attendees. He confirmed to us that he, Sarge, was the Peace Corps. Volunteers revered him as the ‘Father of the Peace Corps”.

Under the big white top on the Mall, on Saturday, Sargent Shriver spoke of “The Challenge”. His remarks were both moving and informative and provided some insights into Robert Sargent Shriver, the man, and the making of the Peace Corps.

He opened by stating “Mine is an impossible task. To describe the challenge facing the Peace Corps is to describe the most profound problems facing the entire world. . . . .You know that all of us in the Peace Corps constitute merely a handful of persons seeking perfection in a world population of billions struggling for mere survival.”

Mr. Shriver confided that no one in 196l would have predicted the Peace Corps would last five years let alone twenty-five. He recalled that most in the Peace Corps Headquarters were just hoping for congressional approval to survive to the next budget cycle and the Peace Corps never had a multi-year authorization — much less a multi-year budget appropriation; thus, there was no scope for long-term planning. “Every year was “do-or-die”, working under conditions in which each year more than 25 percent of the Congress voted against the Peace Corps. Sarge listed “famous enemies” of the Peace Corps: Otto Passman, H.R. Gross, Homer Capehart, Bourke Hickenlooper, and others. He named some famous Democrats as well as Republican skeptics: Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Russel, Richard Nixon, Walter Judd, Edith Bolton and Gerry Ford.

Contrary to popular myth, Shriver admitted that the Peace Corps was not accepted like apple pie and motherhood. But he proudly reported, “Nevertheless, we were nervy, even presumptuous.”

He revealed that there were 400 volunteers overseas at work before Congress approved the Peace Corps, a feat accomplished by using Presidential Discretionary Funds of less than ten million dollars to hire Peace Corps’ entire staff at home and abroad, select and train volunteers, ship them overseas and arrange all operations in seven countries. Acknowledging that no one could do that politically or financially in today’s climate, he reminisced, “Those were truly the good old days.”

Secondly, Sarge pointed out that initially many at the Peace Corps Headquarters volunteered. He was an exception and called himself the “first and only draftee” in the Peace Corps. His excuse was, “Kennedy made me do it.”  He listed a number of people who just showed up to get the program off of the ground: Bill Moyers, Warren Wiggins, Bill Josephson, Frank Mankiewicz, Morris Abrams, Sally Bowles, Nan McEvoy, Pat Kennedy, Lee St. Laurence, Frank Williams, Harris Wofford, Bill Haddad and many others. He explained that the newly hatched agency survived without an organizational chart for several months before the need for more structure became glaringly apparent.

His third point was that the Peace Corps was started without knowing  “whether anybody in the world wanted it”, citing that there was no market research, no real spokesperson and as a consequence, the meager, mostly volunteer staff did it themselves, traveling to potential customers – nations of the less developed world. Sarge applauded the leaders of initial host nations who gambled with us: Ghana, India, Tanzania, the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Columbia and Venezuela, leaders he described as “heroes of the first Peace Corps.” He was convinced we could not have succeeded without their cooperation because, “The Peace Corps has always been a two-way street.”

Then Shriver talked about the much-to-do over the title of the Peace Corps explaining that many bitterly contested the name. Some wanted a solid bureaucratic title such as “The Agency for Overseas Volunteer Service.” Conservatives opposed the word, “Peace,” terming it wishy-washy, vague and weak and others considered the word, “Peace” had been corrupted because it was applied to every political initiative and every war in which the U.S. become a participant. The Left Wing disliked the word, “Corps”, believing it sounded militaristic.

In the end, it was Sarge who decided to use both words, reasoning “that together we got the best of both: ‘Peace’ because that was truly our business — and ‘Corps’ because it showed that we were not individuals, but a group.”

Shriver urged his audience to remember our beginnings and reminded us that, ”We risked everything then in a leap of faith that the Peace Corps would succeed — We risked everything that Volunteers would respond. We were dedicated to the pursuit of peace… And we think that everyone in the Peace Corps and everyone who has ever worked in the Peace Corps is a special person, who given a chance, will overcome any problem.”

He continued, “So, may it be said that the Peace Corps is a miracle, a little one perhaps, but still a genuine one! For surely it was an intuitive flash of spirit which prompted Kennedy to say to himself: ‘Yes, the idea of a Peace Corps is right. It fits the times. It strikes the right note. It resonates to the concept. People will respond.’”

Former Peace Corps Volunteer Brenda Brown Schoonover and Former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver at the Tree Planting Ceremony at the National Arboretum (September 21, 1986)

Shriver asked, “How did Kennedy know?” Answering his own question, he responded that the President “didn’t really know as one knows the facts of history or the accuracy of an algebraic equation. He knew it as Picasso knows the line he draws, or Yeats the word or phrase he chooses for a poem. Kennedy ‘knew’ the Peace Corps idea was right and timely, and evocative just as he ‘knew’ that ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ was right and timely and evocative and unifying and inspirational….Just as he knew that ‘We shall put a man on the moon in this decade’ would lift men’s souls and minds and hearts.” Shriver delighted in the fact that people still responded to Kennedy’s vision.

In closing, he counseled Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to “Stay as you are. Be servants of peace. Work at home as you have worked aboard, humbly, persistently, intelligently. Weep with those who are sorrowful, rejoice with those who are joyful. Teach those who are ignorant. Care for those who are sick.” He urged Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to serve their spouses, families, neighbors, cities and the poor. “Serve, Serve, Serve! That is the challenge. For in the end, it will be the servants who save us.”

As we applaud the Peace Corps’ half-century mark, Robert Sargent Shriver’s advice a quarter of a century ago is still relevant.

Brenda Brown Schoonover
Brenda Brown Schoonover

Brenda Brown Schoonover, a native of Maryland, retired from the U. S. State Department Foreign Service in 2004 after more than 30 years of U.S. Government service. In addition to her volunteer assignment, she was also on the Peace Corps Staff in Washington and in Tanzania. There, she met her late husband of forty years, Foreign Service Officer Richard (Dick) Schoonover.  She accompanied Dick on his tours with the United States Information Agency in Nigeria and Tunisia. After Brenda joined the State Department, the couple had tandem assignments in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Belgium. Brenda was also U.S. Ambassador to Togo in West Africa. She currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is on the advisory boards of the University of North Carolina’s Global Education, the International Affairs Council in the Research Triangle, IntraHealth International and Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service. She is President of American Diplomacy Publishers.


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