|Kennedy Greets Inaugural PCVs in Rose Garden, 1961|
“Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often.” --–Mark Twain
“Great Uncle Loring once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln,” my grandmother used to say, her prideful face aglow. “This was right after the Emancipation Proclamation. And everybody in our family has voted Republican ever since.”
When I was growing up I doubted that I would be the first in the family to stray from the faithful elephant parade. But at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd of shivering students on the steps of the Union at the University of Michigan. Just weeks before the national elections, he challenged them to devote two years to work in developing countries with Peace Corps.
When I heard the radio broadcast later that morning, I pictured myself boarding a plane for Tanganyika or Paraguay where I would teach toddlers to read. I envied those students who might have this chance to serve.
But it could not happen, I told myself. First, it was unlikely Kennedy would get elected. Nobody in my family or my husband’s thought that the young man from Massachusetts could divert enough votes from frontrunner Nixon.
Second, I was married, had a toddler, and was working towards a bachelor’s degree. When I mentioned Kennedy’s proposal to my husband, he just laughed.
“There’s children right here in Southern California who need to learn to read. You don’t have to go overseas to make your dreams come true,” he pointed out.
Until Election Day, I still hadn’t made up my mind. But inside the booth I thought that even if I couldn’t have that chance to serve, I should advocate for those who could. So I voted for Kennedy, knowing that my husband would tease me later about our votes canceling each other.
A few months later, I privately thrilled to JFK’s inaugural address. I had always scoffed at the notion that I belonged to a so-called Silent Generation. Now Kennedy insisted that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans, one that would be vocal and active. I vowed to be part of that generation.
Of course my husband had been right about people needing help at home as well as overseas. So I got a teaching credential and settled in as a high school English and journalism teacher right in Long Beach, CA.
The day Kennedy was shot, I turned on the classroom radio and we listened as the horrific story unfolded. I sent students in relays to the nurse’s office for boxes of Kleenex. I thought about Great-Great-Great-Uncle Loring, and wished I’d had the opportunity to shake Kennedy’s hand. Now it would never be.
A few years later, after riots rocked our inner cities, I abandoned teaching to become a caseworker to help rebuild South Central Los Angeles. My parents had a tough time understanding this. They remembered the depression years, and seemed to think I was working in a soup kitchen. No matter how much I tried to explain about Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Equal Opportunity Act, they insisted upon telling friends, “Terri’s working for The Dole.” I knew they pictured me wrapped in a big white apron, ladling out soup. Eventually I returned to graduate school and earned an MSW at UCLA.
Then finally, at 50, divorced, my son grown, I joined the Peace Corps. Friends raised eyebrows and issues: “Aren’t you a bit, how shall I put this, uhhhh, old?” “Do you think you’re up for mosquitoes and pit latrines?” “You know, don’t you, that older people have a lot of trouble learning new languages?”
I developed some pat rejoinders. Peace Corps reassured me that a number of seniors join. With my skills, I would most likely live in towns or cities, not a mud hut. I could relearn my high school Spanish and college French, if need be.
I joined, rejoined and then extended. After a decade overseas, I returned to the States and became a health programming and training specialist at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington DC. In this capacity I helped strengthen efforts of Volunteers in dozens of countries to address malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and the infectious diseases that lead to high infant mortality rates.
On January 29, 2002, Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of JFK, and founding director of the Peace Corps, gave a speech at the Directors Forum at Peace Corps Headquarters to a packed audience of about 200 staffers. Frail, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Shriver nonetheless read in a strong voice from his notes and emphasized that peace is more than just the absence of war. He affirmed that peace “is living together based on what we have in common. Our differences matter less than our kinship.” I took notes.
After his speech, he shook hands with dozens of us, nodding as we told him where we had served as Volunteers. “I’m honored to shake your hand,” I told him. “I owe my whole life to you and to President Kennedy.”
“I’m honored to shake yours,” he said.
After I retired in 2004 I continued to speak at schools and before service groups during Peace Corps week each March. When Hurricane Katrina and Rita combined to decimate the Gulf States in 2005, I joined Peace Corps’ short term Crisis Corps and spent a month in Beaumont TX with FEMA, helping those who had lost everything but their lives.
A few years ago I was keynote speaker at the Oregon School Counselor’s Association Conference. For a PowerPoint presentation I spent a week sorting through photographs in my faded old paisley duffel bag.
Once again I saw myself leaning against a coconut palm in the front yard of my house on Regent Street in Belize City, perching behind my counterpart on her motorcycle in San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, and painting murals on the Youth Center fence with teens in Mont Fleuri, Seychelles.
What an incredible adventure for me…all because I heard an inspired and inspirational campaign speech by JFK over fifty years ago.