JFK, Sarge, and a dream that didn't die

JFK was back in the news yesterday . . . second time this week. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his inaugural speech. His words stirred us all: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

Many of us did exactly that. Thousands of us joined the Peace Corps, the program set up by JFK's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver. Sarge died Tuesday (January 18) at the age of 95.

Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver In memory of Sarge and JFK's inaugural, I'm going to hold off on Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and how the controversy over nigger v. slave affects Soda Springs. We'll get back to that next week.

If you weren't around for JFK's inaugural 50 years ago, you only have to think back to President Obama's swearing in to sense what JFK's inaugural was like. We were ecstatic, hopeful, thrilled beyond words. Here was promise for a bright future.

To top it off, JFK spoke directly to me with his "ask not" . . . just as Martin Luther King did on August 28, 1963, when he articulated my dream for a better, more just society.

Only six weeks into his presidency, on March 1, 1961, JFK created the Peace Corps with an executive order. The first group left for Ghana and Tanzania in August. I applied to be one of them, but fate intervened: my father was killed in a car accident on April 10. I postponed my plan to drop out of college, and it would be three more years before I could honor that dream.

Sarge was still Peace Corps director when my wife and I went to the Philippines in the summer of 1965. Alas, the days of formal send-offs in the Rose Garden were long over: nearly 15,000 volunteers were in the field by the end of that summer.

My wife and I didn't end our Peace Corps days with those two years in Leyte, Philippines. In the late '70s, we were country directors in Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu, and I spent two years after that on the Washington, D.C. headquarters staff.

Today, more than 8,600 Peace Corps Volunteers serve around the world. Let's give a moment of silence for Sarge Shriver and John Kennedy: they opened new worlds to us. They madeit possible for us to live abroad as neighbors, not tourists . . . among people with strikingly different values, customs, and tongues. We learned their ways, and in the process realized what made us Americans. The experience changed our lives: we learned, above all else, that "our way of life" isn't the only way.