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Hesburgh recalls Peace Corps origins

Megan Doyle | Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On March 1, 1961, University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh encountered two friends as they ran across LaFayette Square in Washington, D.C., to “the boss’ office.”

The two men, Sargent Shriver and Harris Wofford, were bringing an executive order to President John F. Kennedy for him to approve the creation of a Peace Corps. Kennedy signed the order that day. Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the corps’ formation.

“I knew [the Peace Corps] from the beginning,” Hesburgh said on the anniversary. “I was present during the creation.”

Hesburgh and Shriver, the newly appointed director of the program, spent that first evening in 1961 planning the Peace Corps’ first project over the phone. As the anniversary of that initial conversation passed, Hesburgh reflected on the role Notre Dame played in the program’s beginning.

“We trained the first Peace Corps volunteers at Notre Dame that summer in June, July and August,” he said. “In the fall they went down to Chile in a boat and began two years of service … Notre Dame has the distinction of having the first Peace Corps that got into the field.”

Notre Dame hosted the first group of Peace Corps volunteers as they trained for their two years of service. The volunteers spent eight weeks on Notre Dame’s campus, Hesburgh said. They took courses in Spanish, Latin American history, political science and social improvement.

Hesburgh was closely involved with the volunteers as they trained on campus.

“I was their teacher and their mentor because I put the program of training together,” he said. “I met with them every day. I took care of many of their early problems. So I was like the father or counselor for the first Peace Corps volunteers in the world.”

The 40 volunteers worked along the central valley of Chile with campesinos, or farm people, in the region.

“We were taking kids from a rich country like the United States to countries that were very poor, and that was quite an adjustment to get them to understand what they were walking into and what they could do to help them,” he said. “They helped them with farming and with building their houses and with a whole wide range with upgrading socially, these very poorest people in Chile.”

Hesburgh continued to advise Shriver as the Peace Corps grew. After five years, he said the small program grew to over 200 sites around the world.

“I was in their office in Washington very often giving them advice on project and helping them develop the Peace Corps in its early years,” he said. “I was involved very heavily the first five years, when Sargent Shriver was going to get started.”

Kennedy began the program on “a temporary, pilot basis,” in 1961. Fifty years later, 8,655 volunteers are stationed around the world.

“I think it is important to look back on the Peace Corps because it was one of the Kennedy experiments that really stood the test of time and did much good to many people, many nations all over the world,” Hesburgh said. “That is not just Peace Corps but that is Notre Dame’s mission too. That is why we fit in so well with the Peace Corps. To this day we have people volunteering for Peace Corps.”

The University is currently ranked 18th among medium-sized universities producing Peace Corps volunteers.

Hesburgh said the connection between Notre Dame and the Peace Corps runs deeply into the University’s mission.

“We have a student body that even during college years helps all over the place in social action programs like tutoring or working with the poor,” he said. “It is a natural fit with Peace Corps. We have students who are both intelligent and generous, and some are good in languages, and all of that helps with Peace Corps.”

Twenty-five Notre Dame graduates currently serve among the 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the world.

“[The Peace Corps] fits in exactly with Notre Dame and its goals. We train people to work for social justice,” Hesburgh said. “This was a question of going into an unjust world, a world in economic imbalance between the very rich and the very poor and somehow bridging over and helping the poor move up in life by having better confidence as farmers or workers.”

The Peace Corps is currently engaged in 77 countries. Hesburgh said he visited Peace Corps sites whenever possible as he traveled around the world on other business and met many volunteers over the years.

“It was a wonderful feeling of generosity on the part of these young people who were willing to give up two years of their lives after they graduated college,” he said. “They could have gone out and made money, and instead they went into the Peace Corps where they made practically nothing but served the poor all over the world.”