John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps shortly after his inauguration to fulfill a promise he'd made to University of Michigan students at a bull session after a presidential campaign speech. Kennedy ensured that any failure would be kept in the family by appointing his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to run the new organization. The irrepressible Shriver made sure Kennedy need not have worried.
Shriver led a small group that began meeting at the Mayflower Hotel to lay plans. Americans began applying. The first volunteers were selected and began training. Meanwhile, inspired by the young president, I was dropping out of college and heading to Washington to seek to join the New Frontier.
I heard the Peace Corps was hiring, and after passing the Civil Service typing test on the third try, I joined the staff. On Sept. 25, 1961--three days after Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act, making it a permanent government agency--I reported for work as a file clerk. The first volunteers hadn't yet been deployed. The file room was in the Selection Division, which screened the applicants and assigned them to projects. We clerks filled applicant files with incoming references. When the required number had been received, an application was ready for evaluation.
Our selection officers, mostly psychologists and psychoanalysts, relentlessly bugged us clerks for hatching files. (One such visitor to our service window was a junior psychologist with a winning smile from Owensboro, Kentucky, named Marilyn Medley. Three years after her first appearance we were married, and 3 1/2 years after that, we ended up in her native state, when I joined the Courier-Journal staff.)
Shortly after my arrival, the first volunteers entered service. A Nigeria volunteer quickly caused the first Peace Corps scandal, when she wrote derogatory comments about Nigeria on a postcard, for anyone to see. Nigerians speak English. She was swiftly recalled.
We worked many extra hours in the early days, often long into the night, for which I recall we weren't paid. We worked that hard because Americans were applying in droves and Congress initially limited our staff to 500 employees. Treading warily, Congress also initially required all staff members to undergo full-field FBI investigations rather than routine Civil Service Commission background checks. That produced an incident in Fredericktown, Ohio, when the FBI sought to confirm that I grew up there. Two agents knocked at the...