Peace Corps Reunion’s Significance
Wednesday - November 30, 2011
In the fall of 1963, three groups of young people were at the Peace Corps training Center in Hilo, Hawaii. All but a few were college graduates, some held graduate degrees. They were overwhelmingly white and middle class, and to one degree or another idealism motivated them all.
They had all hearkened to the most famous words in President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” The Hilo trainees were bound for Indonesia, Sabah and Sarawak on the north coast of Borneo, and Thailand.
Few had ever heard of Hilo when they received their letters inviting them to teach in rural elementary, middle or high schools in warmer, wetter and more culturally diverse countries than anything the continental states had to offer.
But Hawaii, the country’s newest and most culturally diverse state, offered ideal conditions for training volunteers for Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Samoa, Micronesia indeed, almost anywhere in Asia and the Pacific.
Hilo offered a tropical climate, monsoon rains, and a host population of Asia and Pacific Islanders. By their example in their homes, their restaurants, their schools, on their street corners and in their sugar fields Hilo’s residents provided profound lessons in the need for cultural sensitivity.
And they taught aloha. Stand beside a highway with a sign that said Peace Corps, and they’d pick you up and take you to the county beach at Hapuna. They invited you into their homes. They came, leis in hand, to your official swearing-in ceremony at Akaka Falls. And they saw you off at the airport.
President Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, shook the Indonesia, SabahSarawak and Thailand volunteers. They all contributed $1 from their weekly Peace Corps living allowance to build a small monument and engrave a plaque with Kennedy’s admonition to “ask not ... ” It was placed in front of the old Hilo Hospital, where, over the years, it fell into disrepair.
On the weekend of Nov. 19-20, 400 ex-Peace Corps volunteers (four from Malaysia XIV, the group in which my future wife and I served) from around the nation gathered at the entrance to the University of Hawaii-Hilo’s campus for a rededication of the reconditioned monument.
Representatives of the 1963 Thailand, Indonesia, and Sabah/Sarawak groups spoke of what Kennedy, training in Hilo and service in the Peace Corps had meant to them. Laughter and tears and remembrance wafted through the crowd, as they would over the next four days at potlucks, a dinner and tours of the Peace Corps training sites.
The Peace Corps was, of course, a noble idea, but it was also part of the Cold War that consumed the United States for more than four decades. Throughout the 10 years Hilo trained Peace Corps volunteers, other American youths were doing and dying for their country in Vietnam.
On this, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, countries we called underdeveloped in 1963, Korea and Malaysia, for example, have gained economic parity with the United States.
And the center of the world has shifted. As President Barack Obama’s remarks in Honolulu, Indonesia and Australia, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s at the East-West Center make clear, the United States’ attention turns to the Pacific and Asia. Hawaii’s importance will grow apace.
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