Illustration by: Thomas Rausher, BFA '12
Alumnus Jeff Rhodes (back row, light blue shirt) joined Zambian high school students and other Peace Corps volunteers for a basketball game in Sinda, Eastern Zambia, the region where he served.
Nov 18, 2012
By Mary Reed
When Frank Gillespie set off for Thailand in 1962 as one of Ohio University's first Peace Corps volunteers, little did he know that he was kicking off a 50-year tradition of international service by idealistic Bobcats.
Gillespie, a 1958 graduate, arrived in Thailand as part of "Group II," that is, the second group of Americans to ever serve for the Corps. It wasn't John F. Kennedy — who established the Peace Corps in 1961— who primarily inspired this service, Gillespie says. Rather, it was Ohio University's professors, many of whom had served overseas in World War II. Among them, Gillespie singles out History Professor John Cady, who had served in the Office of Strategic Services (later the CIA) during the war and then in the State Department, overseeing programs in Asia and Africa.
"It is difficult to explain the influence John Cady had on me," Gillespie said during a recent interview. "He was an example of a man who had been involved with history as it was being made, was clearly an expert in his field, and as he taught history he brought in the idea that a real student must look at how people in the country of study behave and why."
While Gillespie credits his professor for preparing him for a stint in Asia, he didn't need much help once he arrived. He served as an instructor at a teacher's college in the northeast part of the country, where he fit in quite nicely as a colleague, badminton teammate and kite-fighting spectator. He helped at least 10 students at the college earn American Field Service scholarships to the United States, a first for that institution.
"Personally, Peace Corps confirmed for me that I could learn — and use — foreign languages; that I could function in environments different from previous experience," said Gillespie, who would use these skills in his future international development career.
Gillespie's service fulfilled Peace Corps' three goals: to train the host country's own people, to promote a better understanding of Americans in the host country and to help Americans understand other peoples better.
This last category may be where Gillespie excelled: He married a fellow instructor from Thailand, Urai Santitrakul. When they traveled to the United States, he wanted to show her his alma mater. "When we were first married, one of the first things [we did] — we came back and went to Homecoming back in 1965."
Since 1961, more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries. More than 770 of those volunteers are Ohio University alumni, including 29 current volunteers.
When the Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, Frank Gillespie was one of thousands of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) who attended the festivities in Washington, D.C. After laying a wreath on Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, a parade of RPCVs walked to the National Mall, carrying the flags of the countries in which they served. "I was thinking what a fine demonstration this was of how the U.S. can be a positive, person-to-person influence around the world," Gillespie remembered about the day.
Also there was Alan Boyd, retired director of Ohio University's International Student and Faculty Services. Boyd and his wife, Sue Boyd, served as Peace Corps volunteers together in Ethiopia beginning in 1964, so they walked under the Ethiopian flag. "Returned Peace Corps volunteers, at least in the early years, are very proud of the fact that they served in the Peace Corps. It's a lifetime commitment; it lasts forever," Alan Boyd said.
To learn more about the university's unique connection to the Peace Corps training programs of the 1960s and read the story of Maura Fulton, a 1999 alumna who serves as Peace Corps chief of programming and training for the Europe, Mediterranean and Asia region, read your copy of the Fall 2012 issue of Ohio Today magazine or access the article "Corps Values" online.
“I had been accepted (by Peace Corps) to go to Morocco. I moved back to Athens in June and July, into a rooming house on State Street. The guy who lived in the basement with me saw all these maps on the table and said, ‘Oh, I was in Peace Corps in Morocco and so were about 10 other people in this town.’ I got to meet a great group of people. It wasn’t until then that I discovered that Athens was this sort of Mecca for people with Peace Corps.”
—Jeff Magoto, a 1983 and 1985 alumnus and Peace Corps English teacher (Morocco, 1978-80)
Director of the Yamada Language Center, University of Oregon
“I’m of the opinion that everybody needs to do Peace Corps or do something that gets them out of their own country for at least a year. The world is far too global to have a mono-country or mono-region experience. The advantage of doing Peace Corps and doing OU (is) if you can merge a Peace Corps experience with your academic pursuits, it really puts you in a different category if you’re going to pursue a career in association with what you studied or what you did in Peace Corps … You rarely get somebody who’s got the academic training and the field experience at a young age.”
—Diane Nell Hardgrave, 1988 alumna and Peace Corps radio producer (Liberia, 1983-85)
Visiting assistant professor of anthropology, Southern Methodist University
“My first degree (at Ohio University was a) master’s degree in human relations. It was a good program, but I wasn’t prepared for transformative experiences yet. … I went on to Peace Corps, and that was just incredible then. The second time I got a master’s degree at OU I was just really ready to learn.”
—Lynn Rinehart, 1962 and 1993 alumnus and Peace Corps YMCA programming developer (Venezuela, 1962-1964)