The hardest job I ever loved

It was late March, 1962. I was on the U.C. Berkeley campus, walking alone, on my way to a north side café to meet friends.

Above the road, in the distance, stood a magnificent stone and timber residence hall with a stretching athletic field. On any given day there were students playing on the field, tossing footballs and Frisbees, the street always busy, people walking to class.

On this day I saw no one. It was eerily quiet.

Then, around a soft bend in the road, came four cars headed in my direction. A small motorcade. Two police cars led the way, their lights flashing, with one unmarked sedan further back. They bracketed a gleaming black Lincoln convertible with its top down.

Curious, I waited, watching, as the Lincoln drew near. To my amazement, seated in the back of that imposing car was President Kennedy, his shock of familiar thick hair brushed by the wind. He was, I remembered, scheduled to speak at Memorial Stadium for the university's Charter Day.

Looking back, thinking about all that has happened since, I can't imagine why I was so completely ignored, one solitary individual standing on a sidewalk on a two-lane road. But that seismic day in Dallas was still more than a year away.

As the motorcade drew parallel, I told myself I wouldn't react. I'd remain cool, detached. I certainly wouldn't wave; yet there I was, one arm up in the air, waving excitedly. And then, unexpectedly, he looked directly at me, our eyes locked ever so briefly, and he smiled that incandescent signature smile, and I raised up as if I might levitate, both arms in the air, and I waved without restraint, an unabashed stadium wave, a come-from-behind, just-before-the-buzzer, swish-shot-from-mid-court wave.

The men in the black sedan, traveling close behind, regarded me coolly, appraisingly, and then the motorcade was gone.

What lingered and then grew from that day forward was my commitment to an idea that Kennedy had suggested for the first time on Oct. 14, 1960, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A group of some 10,000 students had gathered, waiting into the earliest hours of the morning, to hear him speak. Kennedy began with some general remarks and then asked, "How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?"

Those words, reflecting a nascent idea, spoken in the early hours of a crisp Michigan morning, were expanded upon at the Cow Palace on November 2, 1960, just days before the election. Kennedy said, "Think of the wonders skilled American personnel could work, building goodwill, building peace. There is not enough money in all of America to relieve the misery of the underdeveloped world in a giant endless soup kitchen. But there is enough know-how and enough knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves." It was then that he mentioned creating a Peace Corps of talented men and women, saying, "We cannot discontinue training our men as soldiers of war — but we also need them as ambassadors of peace."

With his election, that challenge, repeated again in his inaugural address — "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" — was soon transformed into the reality of the Peace Corps, a call to service that resonated with me and thousands of others who stepped forward and made a commitment that would take them to the remotest villages, the poorest towns and the darkest urban slums of the world.

Even today I think of myself as a Kennedy volunteer. The Peace Corps will always possess his imprimatur. He called and we answered. We looked toward the horizon and said, in unison, send us. Let us do the work, live with the people. Their struggles will be our struggles. Their days will be our days. We can do this.

Of course, we didn't know anything about those distant places, not really. How could we? We came from the First World, from an unimaginable affluence. For some of us, the reality of the Third World was more than we could bear. For others, it was, at first, an experience to be endured. And then, with time, it brought an unexpected joy, an experience that was memorable beyond all years, life-changing beyond all measure.

This year, 2011, is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 139 countries.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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