In March 1961, soon after his inauguration, President John F. Kennedy introduced the United States Peace Corps — a concept offering material help to developing nations and better understanding for all. Seven years later, upon graduating from Weber State, I joined the ranks.
Today American volunteers, young and not so young, learn skills to assist communities in over 60 countries around the world in the fields of agriculture, education, health, community economic development, environment and the development of youth.
The Peace Corps goal is threefold: (1) help interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women, (2) help promote a better understanding of Americans through the people served, and (3) help Americans better understand other people around the world.
My assignment was to serve as a poultry marketing and extension agent in the State of Rajasthan, on the edge of the Great Indian Desert. In preparation I was trained for several weeks in a similar climate — the desert of Southern California — learning about the Hindi language, the Indian culture and technical poultry skills.
Once in India, I established my home in the city of Jaipur. Known as the “Pink City” for its trademark building color, it has also Maharaja’s castles and a rich jewelry trade. Jaipur is located on a popular tourism triangle with New Delhi and Agra, which is home to the famed Taj Mahal. I served there for almost four eventful, satisfying and productive years.
My fellow volunteers and I were given a small stipend and encouraged to schedule brief excursions from time to time in order to learn more about our host country and arm ourselves with positive cultural stories to share upon our return to the United States.
My American colleagues and volunteers from other nations, who belonged to programs modeled after the United States Peace Corps, often followed the tourist trails. One weekend more than a dozen of these traveling volunteers coincidentally converged on my residence. I fed them, and we enjoyed great camaraderie. Toward the end of their visit, a member of the group noted that we were sitting in a friendly gathering and “breaking bread”: French, British, German, Japanese and American volunteers all working together to help improve the lives of the people of India. Just one generation earlier, our parents had been directed to fight one another in a world war.
We realized this phenomenal moment was a stellar revelation of society’s ability to change, to adopt new attitudes, to set new standards and to live by them.
Singular, individual acts of understanding and service are possible, not just in the Peace Corps, but in our daily lives, and even in times of war.
I remember the story of one of my mentors, former Ogden City manager Larry Hunter (no relation), who passed away in 2005. During our time together — he as my employer, and I, his eventual successor — he told me many stories. I have come to realize most of them were meant as subtle training. All of them were colorful and helpful. One of the best stories was one he never shared with me. Perhaps his modesty prevented the telling. I heard it only during the eulogy given by granddaughter Kelli Booth at his funeral.
She told that one evening, while on patrol during World War II in the Pacific Theater, Larry encountered and captured a single enemy soldier who was half naked, without shoes and starving. She said before her grandpa took his prisoner to the commander, he led him to his own tent, gave him half his rations and a pair of boots. Although Larry had been taught to hate the enemy, he first thought of him as a human being. The spirit of his actions would impact not only the attitudes of men in his military unit, but also the hundreds of employees he would lead later in his professional career.
As individuals and as a society, we can bring about changes in attitude no matter the circumstance.
One of the all-time greatest examples of tolerance and understanding and peaceful undertakings was Mahatma Gandhi. I’m glad I was able to spend some time in his country as a Peace Corps volunteer, learning about the culture of the people he loved so much. May his spirit, the spirits of all good souls and the spirit of the Peace Corps continue to inspire us.