America: Peace Corps veterans recall JFK’s appeal

Barbara Mori talking about the Peace Corps and JFK.NEW MEXICO. If you doubt the impact of a single voice uttering a single sentence, talk to Peace Corps volunteers who set off to help the world in the late 1960s. We spent a day visiting a nationwide reunion of 1967 volunteers who trained for four months at Ghost Ranch, a 22,000-acre facility in northern New Mexico, then flew to South Korea to help improve public health.

What was that single sentence? In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

In separate interviews, one veteran after another mentioned that electrifying memory as fuel that drove their decision to sign up. Most were high school students when they heard Kennedy issue that call, which they remembered through college and beyond. Some of the young men among the more than 100 people who trained at Ghost Ranch also were hoping to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. But person after person at this reunion recalled hearing the Kennedy speech as vividly as Americans recall the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 today.

What’s most remarkable is that Kennedy’s appeal continues to shape their lives half a century later.

“I was in high school when Kennedy gave us that clarion call: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you …’ That energized me and a lot of other people,” said Mary Ernsberger from Greenbelt, Maryland. “It was an era in the early to mid ‘60s when we believed it was part of who we are as Americans to make a difference in our world.

“There was a generation that came of age in the 1950s that was part of a more moderate way of living. Of course you wore a skirt to school if you were a girl at that time and you did what was expected of you. Then there was a generation after us in the 1970s that felt they really were starting something very new. We came of age in the nexus between these two generations, when we all wanted to do what we could for our country. And, at the same time, we also were increasingly exposed to what was happening in the Vietnam War and the movement for Civil Rights and empowerment in the black community.

“We felt a great responsibility to act for our country in ways that were appreciated and to do that even if our work wasn’t fully appreciated. When I returned to the U.S. after the Peace Corps, I still wanted to be involved. I had majored in social work, so I worked in a drug-treatment program.

“When I flew to Korea, I remember my father telling me in the airport, ‘Well this will turn your ideals into realism.’ Today, I am realistic, but ideals are still a part of my life.”

Another veteran of the Peace Corps training at the reunion was Barbara Mori, a recently retired professor of sociology, who taught for many years at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

“I was raised with an immigrant view of America,” Mori said. “I grew up in Brooklyn and then we moved to the original Levittown and I could see that our family had done well here in America. Like many immigrant families, I learned that America often is a rough road to hoe, but it’s also a land of opportunities and our family was successful here. And, I was taught as a Christian that we owe a sense of ‘give back’ for this land where we were successful in ways that we might not have been in Europe. I’m now a Buddhist, but I still feel that same sense of responsibility to others.

“In the 1960s, I heard Kennedy’s call as a personal appeal to me, and the Peace Corps specifically appealed to me so much. I was like many in my generation who answered Kennedy by saying with our decisions, ‘Yes, we’re ready to stand up and do that.’”

As she moved into academia for many years, Mori continued to travel back and forth to Asia. Her travels through the decades weren’t tourism. She supports a wide array of educational programs for women and needy communities in Asia.

We asked the veterans if they think it’s possible for another generation to be permanently shaped by such an appeal. Overall, their answer was: Maybe. That call might have resounded from the election of President Obama, but has not yet cought fire the way Kennedy’s appeal touched young lives. Of course, these Peace Corps veterans were in high school when Kennedy lit up their lives and their own first leaps into global trenches came six years later as they left training at Ghost Ranch and flew to Asia. Their adult careers as community-minded professionals came more than a decade after they first heard Kennedy’s words. We have not yet seen what high school students today will produce.

“We might have heard such a clarion call after 9/11, when a whole lot of people were ready to pitch in again, but that kind of call never came. Instead we got things like Abu Ghraib. There have been so many missed opportunities,” said Ernsberger. “I’m not a pessimist, but I am realistic about the enormous challenges we face in the world. I am very concerned about what will happen with the next generations.

“I am thankful for the life I’ve had and the way I’ve lived. Now I’m going on 65 and I feel very blessed to be a woman in the middle class in this country. I fully understand the opportunities I have enjoyed here in this corner of the world. I’ve been able to move through a very beautiful period of world history and I think we’ve reached our peak as a country.

“The changes ahead will be enormous. So, could another clarion call come? Can someone again electrify us and pull us together in this time when people are so divided? I honestly don’t know,” she said, then paused. “I like to hope so. And, if so, we need to hear it soon.”

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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