SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — It was 50 years ago Friday, but John Turnbull, a newly minted geologist, remembers it like it was yesterday.
He had just finished dinner, and he and some other Peace Corps volunteers were sitting around their house in Saltpond, a small community on the coast of Ghana, when they began picking up reports on their shortwave radio that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Finally, around 11:30 that night, the BBC confirmed Kennedy’s death.
Thousands of miles from home, they looked at each other. “We just didn’t know what to think,” Turnbull said recently.
The following day, elders from the Ghanian community came to their house to express sympathy.
A year later, when Anne Albrink arrived in the Ivory Coast (now the Cote d’Ivoire), local people were screening Kennedy’s face onto the cotton cloths people wrapped around their bodies. She remembers one showing the president’s white hand clasping a black one. “We all bought them,” she recalled.
Turnbull and Albrink were among the first young Americans to sign up for the Peace Corps, one of the most enduring legacies of the Kennedy presidency.
In October 1960, weeks before the election, Kennedy stood on the steps of the student union at the University of Michigan at 2 a.m. and called on young Americans to give two years of their lives in service to the people of the developing world.
The Peace Corps was founded the following year, and since then more than 210,000 Americans have answered the call.
“President Kennedy was so positive about this initiative,” Turnbull said. “For the first time, here was a whole other approach to world peace, based upon friendship. It was just inspiring.”
Today, he said, “When you think of John Kennedy, you think of the Peace Corps.”
Judith Haden, a travel photographer who served in El Salvador after her junior year of college, said, “I think it’s one of the best things he ever did.”
Lorraine Goldman, who worked in Costa Rica with her husband, Don Goldman, from 1972 to 1976, recalled in an email this week, “We, like so many of our generation, thirsted to DO SOMETHING, but we had no idea how to do that. We joined the Peace Corps, like so many others, because John Kennedy asked us to and made it possible.”
And they and many others like them came home and continued to “stay engaged and do good work,” she wrote. “That is part of the Kennedy legacy.”
Santa Fe and northern New Mexico are home to hundreds of people who have served in the Peace Corps. In fact, Shawn Abeita, the Peace Corps recruiter for New Mexico, said Santa Fe ranks in the top 10 per capita for what are known as RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) ages 50 and up. Turnbull said he thinks they choose to live here in part because “we’re not afraid of people of differing cultures.”
According to Alan Burrus, coordinator of the New Mexico Peace Corps Association, there are close to 2,000 RPCVs statewide.
From the beginning, New Mexico’s universities helped train Peace Corps volunteers, and the state continues to supply them — currently some 60 New Mexicans are serving around the world.
According to Abeita, a New Mexico Highlands University graduate and Peace Corps veteran, more than 100 New Mexicans apply annually, and “President Kennedy’s message still resonates with young people who want to serve.”
Although both President Barack Obama and the acting director of the Peace Corps say they want to see the organization grow, some Americans wouldn’t know it still exists. The number of volunteers peaked in 1966 at 15,000 and the budget, currently about $340 million, has not been rising.
This week, returned volunteers living in Santa Fe looked back on their experiences, with most saying that joining Peace Corps led to an incomparable adventure, but more importantly it informed their lives and careers for decades, conferring on them an abiding interest in the world outside their own hometowns.
Philip Crump, a mediator and facilitator, was active in the civil rights movement while an undergraduate at Duke University before joining the Peace Corps. Working with farmers to jump-start the green revolution “really opened my eyes,” he said. “And it has certainly continued to inform my perspective on the world.”
Like many young college graduates, those who joined the Peace Corps often were unsure of what to do with their degrees. In the early days, many young men were looking to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam. Many were idealists, swept up in the Kennedy charisma, but some of the most successful also were seeking practical solutions to global problems.
Most returned with a sense of wanting to be of service. Many became educators, entered graduate school or joined the U.S. Foreign Service. “The idea of thinking globally and acting locally is still alive and well among returned Peace Corps volunteers,” Crump said.
Instead of pursuing an interest in dress design, Judith Haden majored in Spanish after returning from El Salvador. “I think all of us have not just a wider worldview but a better understanding of issues like poverty and food security,” Haden said. She just returned from a 45th reunion with three of the women with whom she served.
Burrus went to Tonga after graduating from UCLA. When he came home, he went to graduate school at Berkeley, and then became an architect and builder. He’s been self-employed his whole working life. “After the Peace Corps, there was no way I was going to spend my career sitting in an office,” he said. In Tonga, he explained, “you’re really in touch with things. The walls were made of woven palm leaves. We were outside all day, more in touch with the seasons.”
It’s hard to measure the impact he and others had in the countries where they served, but, he said, “Some will tell you the biggest value is the volunteers themselves because of the citizens they become.”
What initially appealed to lawyer Frank Katz was the “chance to travel the world and not have to kill people.”
But he agreed with Burrus that “ultimately, I think it did more for us who went and got our world broadened than we ever did for the folks who were there.”
Albrink, who later became a family lawyer, said, “I think it truly opened me up. People gave me lots of opportunities I might not have had if it hadn’t been for the Peace Corps. Especially back in the beginning, it was really a badge of honor to have (served).”
For Sandra Blakeslee, a third-generation science writer, teaching school and living in a remote longhouse in Borneo, was only one of many grand adventures in her life. But she, too, feels that “the Peace Corps did more for us volunteers than it did for the host country. . It just completely changed your worldview to be immersed in a culture completely different form your own. It was a life-changing experience for everyone. You became in international citizen. . And you learned to respect other cultures and realize you are not special (because you are American.)”
Turnbull also said his Peace Corps experience was “life-altering.” Before going to Ghana, he had expected that as a geologist, his career would be in the extractive industries. But after returning home — and serving a stint in the Army — he said, “I didn’t believe in this stuff any more.”
Instead, he ended up working in a federal poverty program and later in environmental protection for what is now the state Environment Department.