Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Commemorate JFK’s 94th Birthday
By Erica Burman on Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
Each year on John F. Kennedy’s birthday, the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, D.C. pay their respects and display their gratitude to JFK by laying a wreath at his gravesite. This past Sunday, May 29, on what would have been JFK’s 94th birthday, a small group of RPCVs and friends reflected on JFK’s life and on the Peace Corps with a brief program just outside Arlington National Cemetery.
RPCV/W Community Service Director Corey Taylor (Benin 1997-1999) spoke of JFK’s commitment to national service and led a moment of silence in honor of the 279 Peace Corps Volunteers who have died in service. NPCA Vice President Anne Baker (Fiji 1985-1987) reflected on the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps and of the pledge beginning in JFK’s inaugural speech to help others help themselves. The most poignant remarks of the day were delivered by Thomas Scanlon (Chile 1961-1963), which we share below. Following the program, the group walked to his gravesite to place 13 roses – representing the 13 original Peace Corps countries – next to the wreaths from RPCV/W and from President and Mrs. Obama.
The group included many “ones” – Chile 1, Togo 1, Philippines 1 and Zambia 1. Emerald Breiding, daughter of Jennifer Green (Madagascar 2003-2007) and Patrick Breiding (Ukraine 2000-2003), placed a rose, as did Francoese Lydia Boto, who stayed with them when she first moved to the United States from her home in Madagascar. And she brought her neighbor, Sally King, a former VISTA volunteer.
Thank you, RPCV/W, for coordinating this moving event, Doug Trapp for your photos, and Tom Scanlon for your eloquent tribute.
TRIBUTE TO JOHN F. KENNEDY
Thomas J. Scanlon
May 29, 2011
I have been asked to pay tribute to President John F. Kennedy today, as some of us “Sons of Kennedy” prepare to place a wreath on his grave. I am honored to do this, especially on what would have been his 94th birthday.
I say “Sons of Kennedy,” even though I did not know him personally. Like all of you, I am only one of the hundreds of thousands of former Peace Corps Volunteers whose lives were profoundly influenced by the Peace Corps that he created. I hope that I speak not only for myself but for all of us whose lives and careers were inspired by him.
When John Kennedy took the oath of office, I was a graduate student in philosophy. Six months later, I entered the Peace Corps. Today, I am still involved with the problems I worked on then. The Peace Corps experience led me to a new life work.
Because I served in the Peace Corps during the Kennedy years, it was only through television and videos that I came to know him and how he made us proud to be Americans. In fact, a great sacrifice for me in being in the Peace Corps was to be outside our country during much of that magical period.
Yet we volunteers were never really very far from events in the United States. I was stationed in Chile in a small village 6,000 miles south of here. One day, exactly 49 years ago today, I drove my jeep as far as I could toward the coast, walked a few miles to a local mission, and continued on horseback for three hours to a remote Indian neighborhood. I was feeling very proud of myself. Certainly no other American had ever been there. Perhaps they had never even heard of the United States, I thought. After the customary cup of tea with my Indian host, he said to me, “Did you know that today is President Kennedy’s birthday?”
There are many achievements that have secured John Kennedy’s place in history. But we focus today on the Peace Corps because it tells us so much about him.
The Peace Corps reflects John Kennedy’s vision of America. He brought out a sense of idealism and participation that runs like a deep stream in all mankind. Through the Peace Corps he challenged us to go to the remotest parts of the world, to live without privileges of any sort, to learn a new language, and to put our skills and energies to work as a symbol of our country’s concern for others.
Ten thousand of us responded to that challenge in the first three months. Today there are over 200,000 Americans who have returned to the United States after serving as Peace Corps volunteers.
The impact of these volunteers – and the 8,600 who are serving today – is incalculable. Perhaps it was summed up best by a little girl in Africa who wrote adoringly to her volunteer teacher – in not so perfect English, “You are a blot on my life which I will never erase.”
The Peace Corps exemplifies another quality of President Kennedy – his courage, in this case the willingness to take a risk. There was considerable opposition to the Peace Corps when President Kennedy first announced it. Some called it a children’s crusade and a publicity stunt.
The Kennedy administration pressed forward. But one of Sargent Shriver’s aides did ask him, fairly early, “Aren’t we really going out on a limb with the Peace Corps? We still don’t know whether the idea will work or whether the volunteers will be accepted.”
“Out on a limb, nothing!” Shriver replied, “We’re out there walking on the leaves.”
The Peace Corps also symbolizes John Kennedy’s commitment to world peace. The Peace Corps itself was a peace initiative. In teaching hundreds of languages to volunteers, the Peace Corps learned that in many languages the word for “stranger” is the same as the word for “enemy.” The Peace Corps has shown that the more we know about each other, the less likely it is that we will consider one another as enemies. President Obama was in Ireland this past week and his efforts for peace echo what John Kennedy said to the Irish Parliament in the summer of 1963, “Across the gulfs and barriers which divide us, we must remember that there are no permanent enemies.”
Finally, the Peace Corps highlights John Kennedy’s compassion for the billions around the world who live in abject poverty and misery. People ask why John Kennedy was so beloved in the developing world? The answer to that question is clear. John Kennedy truly cared about that half of humanity which lacks the basic necessities. He made promises to them and he delivered. He convinced the Congress to approve levels of development assistance and Food for Peace which were unequaled.
The people in developing countries saw us as the direct expression of John Kennedy’s interest in them. “Children of Kennedy” we were called in many parts of Latin America; “wakima Kennedy” or “followers of Kennedy” in Africa.
On the day Kennedy died, there were about 6,000 volunteers serving in 46 countries. Each of them remembers vividly the outpouring of grief which his death occasioned. In Nepal, some villagers walked for five days to where the volunteers were to bring them the sad news. In Iran, a local co-worker told a volunteer, “Our president is dead.” In Bangkok, people dressed in mourning garb. Schools everywhere searched for flags to fly at half-mast. A volunteer wrote from Brazil:
If then this awful thing could reach out to the farthest corners of the world and have the effect on all people that I believe it did – then there is a real brotherhood among men – only one family of man.
History must judge John Kennedy not only by what he was able to accomplish in a thousand days but also by what he inspired all of us to volunteer – in the broadest sense – to do for our country.
So today I suggest that, beyond this wreath, there are other tributes that former Volunteers can pay to John Kennedy. We can pay him this tribute in our own lives; in our concern for a just and compassionate society here at home; in our willingness to assist the masses of poor throughout the world; and most importantly, in assuring our nation’s commitment to take the first steps toward peace. We can be prepared, in his memory and in his honor, to go out and “walk on the leaves.”