Global Idealism Is Still Intact For a Peace Corps Class of '61
Reunion shows how service altered lives of 29 Americans
They were a microcosm of America: carpenters and college professors, men and women, fresh-faced youth and seasoned workers. In 1961, they were the first 29 Peace Corps volunteers to be sent to mainland Asia, to a country now called Bangladesh. And they were determined to put their idealism to work.
Thirty-five years later, their commitment to world causes remains rock solid, but the agency they served has, in some ways, changed more than they have. Once known for its beatniks building earthen dams and singing "Kumbaya," the Peace Corps now has added programs once considered distasteful: marketing, accounting, and business administration.
But most of this Class of '61 welcomes the changed times and says America's idealism still has its place, thank you.
"To survive, you need to be useful and flexible," says Bob Terry, then an instructor from World Learning Inc., the Vermont school that trained the volunteers for their overseas service. "Marketing used to be a dirty word here, but it's just a way to communicate ideas. Now we're a bit smarter."
The volunteers, padding around in sensible shoes, laughed about the time one teacher at the training school called them "the most arrogant, self-centered bunch of individuals" he had ever met.
"It was pride more than arrogance," says Mr. Terry, who monitored the Peace Corps group from Dhaka and is now a management consultant for Arthur D. Little in Boston.
"There was an element of rebellion," admits Bill Guth, who made films on social issues for Bengali-speaking audiences. "Early on, the Peace Corps was getting bad press. People were saying Americans can't take it in the villages and in the heat. We said, 'By God, we'll show them.' "
In the process, the Peace Corps changed the lives of its eager staff. One professor went on to lead an international relief group, another stayed behind and contributed to Bangladesh's studies of women's issues. One became editor of The Washington Monthly, and another, a bricklayer, is still somewhere in Southeast Asia teaching his craft for the US Agency for International Development.
"The Peace Corps gave me a direction," says Jim Bausch, who led Save the Children and now heads the National Charities Information Bureau Inc. in New York. Without the volunteer experience, "I'd be a sociology professor in some liberal arts college," he says.
"Would I do it again? In a heartbeat," says electrical engineer Thomas McMahon, whose daughter, Anne-Marie, just left for a Peace Corps stint in the African nation of Guinea-Bissau. "The Bengalis changed my life. They showed us they could live with next to nothing. I can never feel deprived."
For their part, the Bengali hosts greeted the Americans as partners. Local experts knew which villages needed help, and the volunteers brought skills and sweat.
When the Americans succeeded, they did it big. One civil engineer taught farmers a cheap way to drill water wells so they could harvest three crops a year instead of one. But the volunteers also encountered long periods of inaction. A strike by government workers left 10 volunteers without jobs for several months.
Dan Scheerer, an audio-visual specialist, remembers arriving at his host university to find that it had no A/V equipment and no plans to buy any. So he improvised, using storyboards, cartoons, anything to help communicate the purpose behind a project. Once he built a papier-mache model of a new canal system so the villagers could see how it worked.
"I came to see my job more broadly as a communicator," says Mr. Scheerer, still bearded after all these years.