If you were around when John Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, you can easily finish the famous statement from which the title of this piece is excerpted. For the rest of you, it’s: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Still good advice, in my opinion.
He didn’t waste any time in giving us a new way to do something for our country: he started the Peace Corps two months later. The agency’s mission, then and now: to promote world peace and friendship. We sure could use some of that, then and now.
To date, there are more than 215,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (or RPCVs, as they’re called), including prominent names in government, industry, the arts and media. For example: Christopher Dodd, Paul Tsongas, Donna Shalala, Reed Hastings (founder/CEO of Netflix), Michael McCaskey (chairman of the board, Chicago Bears), Taylor Hackford (movie producer), Lillian Carter (mother of former President Carter), Paul Theroux, Chris Matthews, Bob Vila. Actually, they’re all over the place – you probably know some yourself.
And, yes, the Peace Corps is still going strong today with more than 7,000 volunteers serving in 65 countries.
Less famous than the people named above is my husband, Geoffrey, who was one of the early PCVs, spending 1963-1965 in Senegal, West Africa. As he tells it, “The Peace Corps was two years old, Senegal was two years old, and I was all of 21 years old.”
It was a formative experience in his life. When he tells the story of how he found out from a village kid that JFK had been assassinated, I still get chills. (If you want to read all about it, you can do it here.)
Next week, we’re hosting the first-ever reunion of Geoffrey’s 1963-65 fellow RPCVs, fifty years (yikes, how can that be?!) later. There will be many stories and reminiscences, much catching up on each others’ lives. There will undoubtedly be laughter and probably tears; there will be music and dancing. And there will be African food prepared by a New York City Senegalese restaurant.
I spent two and a half years in West Africa with Geoffrey, ten years after his original African experience, when he was a Peace Corps Deputy In-Country Director. So the stories, music, and food will resonate with me, too. In fact, many of my African experiences (transformative for me) inform Deadly Adagio, which is set in Senegal.
In my next post, I’ll report on the goings-on at the reunion and include a few up-to-date photos of some of the RPCVs. Stay tuned.
Any RPCV’s reading this? If you’re not an RPCV, have you ever thought of joining the Peace Corps?
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