JOHN F. KENNEDY first mentioned the concept of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Student Union at the University of Michigan in the middle of a chilly October night in 1960. Kennedy’s brief speech was only a small but unexpected twist in a spirited political campaign, but it sparked surprising support for an idea that later became the Peace Corps. Earlier that night in New York, JFK and Richard Nixon had participated in the third televised presidential candidates’ debate. Normally, that confrontation would have dominated the news.
Right after the TV debate, Kennedy flew to Willow Run, in 1960 still Detroit’s main airport but actually only four miles from Yipsilanti and ten miles from Ann Arbor. His campaign staff was too optimistic about the travel logistics so the candidate arrived late. He delivered a short but set campaign speech at the airport that the bored reporters had heard many times. But the crowd was larger than expected and slowed down the motorcade that took the candidate to Yipsilanti where Kennedy gave the same standard speech at Eastern Michigan University. Most of the large crowd of students waiting there were too young to vote so his usual speech didn’t fit the audience very well. Nevertheless, the swarm of students stayed excited by his appearance and slowed him even more.
JFK was supposed to arrive around midnight at the University of Michigan Union where he and his entourage were scheduled to spend the night prior to several planned campaign stops the next day. He didn’t actually appear until after 2:00 am. The approach to the university-gothic style Union building includes a broad plaza with a few steps leading to the front door. Despite the late hour of the chilly October night, the plaza was packed with students who spilled over onto the lawn and out into State Street. The atmosphere among the heavily female crowd of expectant students was upbeat, like waiting for a pop star to appear. The female I was interested in at the time was a fellow freshman named Marsha McCann. While I’m sure much of the attraction for her was sincerely political, she was starry-eyed about JFK and was determined to see and hear him in person no matter how late.
In addition to people enduring the cold weather and late hour, the size of the crowd waiting for Kennedy was significant for another reason: The university required all undergraduate women to be in their dorms by 11:00 pm on weeknights. More than 1,500 eager young women (all of them except some married graduate students, and a few adult Democratic loyalists) were subject to punishment for breaking curfew but had decided to damn the consequences and stay out in the cold and wait. There were so many curfew violators that Marsha speculated the University couldn’t punish them all.
I came from an Eisenhower Republican family. Being a little distrustful of JFK, I would not have chosen to hang around for his speech if it had not been for Marsha’s persuasion.
A local organizer made some occasional announcements to keep the crowd apprised of Kennedy’s progress. (e.g. “The senator’s car has just left Yipsilanti and will be here in a few minutes.”) However, no local politicians were vamping at the microphone to fill the time because this was supposed to be a little event involving a few remarks before the senator retired rather than a full-fledged campaign stop. When Kennedy’s car finally arrived, he and some aides had to push their way through the crowd to a spot to the left of the Union’s main entrance. Because the audience was quite impatient to hear their candidate, the introduction was very short. Despite the very late arrival, he got a warm reception. Standing at the microphone in a topcoat, he began with an attempt at humor, a double entendre along the lines of, “I didn’t come to the University of Michigan to make a speech, I came here to go to bed, and I hope you will all join me.” The line was more nuanced than I report it here and played well with the friendly college audience.
JFK started to repeat the standard speech he had already given twice since arriving in Michigan but fairly quickly interrupted himself. He looked over the enthusiastic crowd and noted the hour and the cold that underlined the eagerness and commitment of the young people who had waited so long. He began an unscripted talk about harnessing the energy and dedication of youth like us in the service of the country. Marsha and I were standing on top of a low brick wall across the plaza from the microphone to get a good view, and it seemed as if Kennedy were speaking directly to us.
For the reporters who were barely awake and expecting the same old political speech, this was news! A bold headline across the top of the Detroit paper the next morning declared something like “Kennedy Proposes Youth Service Corps.” I am not sure the story about the TV debate with Nixon even made the front page. Those of us who had been present the night before were somewhat surprised in the morning to see the impact this deviation from the usual campaign rhetoric had created.
On the campus, the “Peace Corps” was a main topic of discussion for days, and it pushed other political issues to the side. We students, the audience for JFK’s remarks that night, were annoyed by certain Republican politicians and some of the pundits who reacted by making fun of the youth service idea. Some people were inspired into action and organized support through petitions and by spreading the word to other campuses. For me, on the other hand, the idea simmered quietly and was a topic of many late night conversations with Tom Robinson, my roommate, another person who was present that night and who responded to Kennedy’s idea.
I later read that the concept for a “Peace Corps” came from some young strategists in Senator Humphrey’s office, but the original plan had been to wait until after the election before revealing it as one of the incoming administration’s new action programs. So “youth service” was not exactly JFK’s spontaneous idea of the moment. However, the patient eager young audience on that frosty night in Ann Arbor, apparently ripe to hear this politician call on their latent altruism, influenced Kennedy’s timing for making the proposal public.
I don’t remember the specific words of the challenges issued by JFK that night, but he wanted to know if we were prepared to give two years of our lives to help people in other countries and serve our own country at the same time. I had come to the gathering with an ulterior motive and had not expected to be impressed by a politician, but I was. The appeal to altruism and call for service resonated with me and many of my fellow U of M students.
I don’t know if starry-eyed Marsha ever took JFK’s message to heart and joined the Peace Corps because, over time, a sequence of other women became the objects of my affections, and I lost track of her before graduation. But my roommate Tom, a landscape architecture major, became a Volunteer in Tanzania in 1964 followed by a stint with USAID in Viet Nam and a career with the State Department. An economics major, I joined the Peace Corps after graduation in 1965 and spent two years teaching high school English in Iran. This led to a thirty-five-year career in intercultural education with the Experiment in International Living and later at an intensive English as a Second language Institute.
Just think of the confluence of contingencies: If I hadn’t chosen to attend the U of M and met Marsha in my freshman composition class, and if she hadn’t been so persuasive, I would not have heard JFK’s challenge to idealistic young Americans in person and taken it as my personal call to service. That random and fragile chain of circumstances has profoundly shaped my life.
While I have lost track of Marsha, my erstwhile companion on that frosty but historic evening, it turns out that Linda Malila, my wife of thirty-four years, was also among the students present and listening to JFK’s words. Although Linda and I overlapped for more than two years at the U of M, (and JFK’s speech is one of several events in Ann Arbor where we are certain we both were present,) we didn’t know each other then and didn’t meet until eleven years later in San Francisco.
As things worked out, Linda never joined the Peace Corps, but JFK spoke to her keen interest in international service. In 1961, she went to Berlin and helped resettle refugees from the East Zone and the GDR as they fled to West Berlin and West Germany. Working for Lutheran World Federation / Volunteer Services, Linda was present when the Berlin wall went up. Kennedy’s message inspired her to action and cemented her strong belief in promoting international and cross-cultural understanding.
On that October evening, I was a lad of rather parochial interests from the small town of Athens, Ohio. If my Peace Corps experience had not globalized my worldview and led to my employment by an international NGO, I am certain I would have had little romantic appeal to Linda when a second confluence of contingencies led to our actual meeting, an event that took place many years and 2000 miles from that chilly but inspiring night in Ann Arbor.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer John Krauskopf taught English in the boys’ secondary schools in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of Khuzistan Province in Iran. In 1969, he returned to Iran for the in-country portion of that year’s Peace Corps training where he supervised a teacher-training summer school. After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, he spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He is now writing a book about his international experiences. Earlier this year John was appointed corporate secretary of the Western Railway Museum in Solano County, California.
He authored the article “Christmas on the Mekong” that appeared in the November 2004 issue of Peace Corps Writers as part of our ongoing series “War and Peace Corps.”