To Preserve and to Learn

Remembering Warren Wiggins

by Dick Irish (Philippines 1962–64;
Staff: PC/Washington 1964–66)

    Warren Wiggins was one of the architects of the Peace Corps and became the agency’s first associate director of program development. Later he was appointed deputy director.
         Following stints as a PCV and on Peace Corps staff in Washington Dick Irish co-founded TransCentury with Warren Wiggins and worked with Warren until 1990. Dick wrote this reminiscence of Warren Wiggins which he is kind enough to let me publish. — jc 

    MY FIRST MEMORY 0f Warren Willard Wiggins was in San Francisco in late 1961. At the time, I was married, long-listed for the Foreign Service, comfortably employed with a Dictaphone and a company car . . . and bored stiff. I was one of America’s “Angry Young Men.” Prone on the living room couch one Saturday afternoon, I was watching on black-and-white TV — complete with rabbit ears — a Dodger/Giants baseball game. At the same time, I was scanning the San Francisco Chronicle for news about the JFK Administration, hoping to find some rays of hope.
         I was angry because Americans seemed insufferably self-complacent; an aura of national self-congratulation pervaded the land. My eye caught a small item in the “National News” section of the paper; a certain Warren Wiggins announced that Peace Corps Volunteers would work overseas and be paid no more than their counterparts, eat and live with the people, and acquire a foreign language or dialect — not just French or Spanish.
         I gave a whoop, heard by my wife Sally in the next room AND shouted, “Someone is finally thinking in Washington!”
         The next day Sally found more information about the Peace Corps at San Francisco State University where she was a student and announced that we were joining. And like a lot of Volunteers of that era — and maybe all eras — joining the Peace Corps changed our lives.
         My next encounter with Warren was late 1964; by then I had served two years as a Volunteer and worked as a lowly staff member in the DC headquarters literally running the mail room — dignified as, “The Production and Distribution Department.” After nine months, I was promoted and told it was my job to recruit former Peace Corps Volunteers for staff jobs in Washington and overseas. I was successful because Warren Wiggins, then Deputy Director, gave priority to any staff nomination so long as he or she was a former Vol.
         During my nearly three year tenure on Peace Corps staff, Warren was always the go-to guy, the fellow who solved problems; a brilliant bureaucrat, he found ways to make the “system” work. After shaking his hand when I was leaving the Peace Corps, he said, “I like your work; I hope to be in touch.” A year later I heard from him: He told me he was a victim of his own policy — the Five Year Flush — and would soon leave the Peace Corps. Would I join him helping build a new kind of company, a sort of Peace Corps–by-other means?

    OUR COMPANY WAS called “TransCentury,” inspired by a James Reston column in The New York Times, January 1, 1967, which talked about the necessity — in the last third of the 20th Century — of focusing not on the problems of the industrial North but the impoverishment of the South, of speaking to the dreams of the young rather than succoring the memories of the old.
         TranCentury’s first headquarters was on 7th Street in the ghetto of Washington, D.C., housed in an abandoned used-furniture store. The idea was for us to work in a poor community and catch something of the flavor of poverty and at the same time project a picture far different than the royal edifices that today house the World Bank and other so-called anti-poverty agencies.
         Wiggins had clear ideas of how he wanted his company to run; some of them were:

    • Open office space. We had no cubicles: Staff worked at long tables. Enthusiasm was epidemic and morale soared off the charts. Those doing analytical work were encouraged to work at home. Our shop looked and sounded much like a storefront political campaign headquarters.
    • Furniture was old and decrepit. Fancy chairs, wall-to-wall carpeting, and poor abstract art hanging on the walls was eschewed.
    • Personnel standards did not exist. In the strictest sense, age, education, previous experience, and the rest of the “Human Resource” folderol were trashed. What we looked for in staff was drive, accomplishment, and ability. TransCentury was for people who cared and sought to help.
    • No such thing as a permanent job existed at TransCentury except maybe Warren’s. We brought in business and/or worked it . . . or left. Indeed, everyone was encouraged to do his own thing and then leave and take what they learned with them. In 1968, for example, a third of the staff left to work for Gene McCarthy — we all came back — and another third left to work for Bobby Kennedy — they came back, too.
    • Scheduled meetings were unheard of. If something needed to be discussed, spontaneous interchanges would break out around the office.
    • WWW was front and center. He sat in the middle of the traffic, usually next to the Xerox machine. He could be approached at anytime by anyone, including job seekers and the homeless off the street . . . and often was.
    • Extracurricular behavior was encouraged. During slow periods, for example, I often played darts.
    • TransCentury welcomed babies, children, and dogs — B.J. Warren, RPCV Peru, even brought her St. Bernard to work; the beast routinely chased the mail carrier from the office.
    • Warren imposed no sales “quotas” on us. People worked hard, because they wanted to, while having fun doing it.
    • Youth was no impediment to employment. I once talked about a prospective job seeker to Warren; I described him as “awfully young.”
           “What does that have to do with anything?” he shot back.
    • The Black, Brown, Peace, Sexual and Feminist revolutions — we missed the “Green” thing — took place at TransCentury six months to one year ahead of becoming national news.
    • Nothing was sacrosanct. When we reasoned together during those spontaneous sessions around someone’s workspace, the only rule was never to laugh at someone’s suggestion.
           Warren’s kind of brainstorming.
    • All the same, laughter was omnipresent, especially laughing with, at, or because of the Boss. My part-time job was giving Warren the needle; he gave it right break — I have the scars.

    WARREN WAS A FATHER arren was a father (six kids), an airman (he flew the hump in WW II), a Harvard-trained economist (he was bored to death in Cambridge), one of the youngest GS-15’s in the history of the government, a Marshall Plan administrator (Bolivia, Norway, the Philippines), author of “The Towering Task,” the seminal paper for the invention of the Peace Corps, a pretty good poet, a cunning cartoonist, a master gardener, and an entrepreneur extraordinary.
         His greatest legacy was managing, nay, leading people as if they mattered. He unleashed me and dozens of others to be the people we and they were meant to be.
         With Warren Wiggins, the glass was never half-filled or half empty: it was always overflowing.