Peace Corps Writers
Being First (page 4)
Being First
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Shaking Kennedy’s Hand
After the Rose Garden speech, President Kennedy, in a stage whisper, asked an aide how busy his schedule was because he wanted to greet each of us individually. He retired to the Oval Office and we paraded through, single file.
JFK meets Ghana I

JFK meets Ghana I

     All of us have some memory of that moment. Don Groff recalled: “I remember just being kind of dumbstruck, going through the line. I do remember that I shook Kennedy’s hand and, as I moved on, he said, ‘Ghan-err or Tanganyika?’ And I told him, ‘Ghan-uh.’”
     For Nate Gross, it was a storybook experience with this special history: “In 1959 Kennedy came to a convocation at Beloit College. Jackie was with him with her classic A-line dress and pill box hat. He gave a great talk there. I later got to shake his hand. So I had great feelings toward Kennedy before Peace Corps. It was really wonderful to be at the White House even though in the receiving line the exchange was perfunctory. We didn’t have any conversation. He just said Good Luck and shook my hand. I think some people had a few sentences.”
     Newell Flather was the last in the reception line and said to President Kennedy, “I’m from Massachusetts too. And my brother was actually a roommate with your brother [Teddy] in college. Then I said, I just want to say something myself. You’ve been under a lot of criticism, skepticism about Peace Corps. We’re going to serve you well.” (As an aside in our interview in 1997 Newell said to me that he felt the comment was a bit “saccharine.”)
     DeeDee Vellenga would write in her diary of that day in the Rose Garden: “The Rose Garden reception was unbelievably hot and confused with reporters, cameramen, wires, tape recorders all over the place. When Kennedy did try to meet us informally after his brief message, he was swamped so it was decided to let us file through his Oval Office and shake hands with him. I couldn’t think of a thing to say to him. All I noticed was his piercing blue eyes. He paused for a moment and looked hard at me and then said, ‘Good luck’— didn’t know quite how to take it. Meeting Shriver was very encouraging — he is down-to-earth and very dynamic in a gutsy sort of way. I think the Peace Corps has a real future if he continues to head it. Now it’s up to us to see how things go in the field!”

Party On
The Washington whirl continued for us that evening with a party at the residence of the Ghanaian Ambassador, Mr. W. Q. Halm. Looking back, it is remembered by all of us as a wonderful, hot and steamy introduction to Ghanaian hospitality. The Ambassador assured us that it never got as hot and humid in Ghana as it did in Washington D C. We danced, ate, and drank for tomorrow we were, not to die, but to fly into the unknown of Ghana.
     After the Embassy party, George Coyne remembers: “Jim Kelly, Maureen Pyne, Ruth Whitney, and myself went to a night club and then caught a taxi up to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We wanted to say a prayer because we really didn’t know what we were getting into and we wanted to light a candle. The cathedral was in complete darkness and we had to light matches to find the door but were able to get in.”
     It’s reassuring that at least four of the group knew enough not to just curse the darkness but to light a candle. They were ready for whatever Ghana might bring.

Here Today, Ghana Tomorrow
On August 29th the fifty of us went to National Airport to board our Pan Am charter, a four-engine propjet, dubbed The Peace Corps Clipper. Before boarding there were some technical matters to deal with. Peace Corps wanted to ship all of our luggage with us on the flight, no doubt calculating that, like a security blanket, arriving with our newly purchased towels, sheets, and underwear, would bring us reassuring comfort in our early days in Ghana.
     I do not know the payload of the good old Clipper but full fuel tanks and an additional 10,800 pounds of baggage (that’s, 216# x 50) might be a problem. Some seats were removed from the plane and each of us was weighed on the luggage scale. Getting this project off the ground may have been more difficult than we were aware.
     Sue Bartholomew remembers vividly the long day: “We waited and waited and waited. Finally some one came to tell us they were taking seats out of the plane because we had all our luggage and that plane wasn’t going to get off the ground. I thought it was funny. They even had to weigh us; then half the seats were gone. Howard Ballwanz talked to the pilot who told him that that there was something called Forest Airline, did a lot of charters. They got that name because with so many people on board they never got higher than the tops of the trees. The pilot said that’s what we’re doing. It’ll take a couple of hours to make our altitude.”

Aboard the Peace Corps Clipper
Pat Kennedy of the Washington staff was our escort officer, not out of fear that any of us would try to escape, but to smooth the way in Ghana by assisting the newly appointed Peace Corps Representative, George Carter, in getting us settled into our assignments. Pat had been involved with the development of the project from the very beginning.
     The flight took twenty-three hours, stopping in the Azores and at Dakar, Senegal, before arriving in Accra the next day, August 30, 1961. All of us recall the flight in different ways but we all agree that there were two distinct groups — the singers and the card players.
The singers were people who, at Berkeley, would come together to sing madrigals for relaxation and their own enjoyment. Alice O’Grady, Tom Peterson, Valerie Deuel, Don Groff all had some musical training and sang beautifully. This was definitely not the beer-drinking Rathskeller “Michael-Row-The-Boat-Ashore” crowd.

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