May 29th was a warm, sunny day in Washington, DC. If John F. Kennedy were alive today, it would have been his 96th birthday. Instead, a few dozen individuals gathered after work at his gravesite, located in the heart of Arlington National Cemetery in full view of the city, and placed flowers on the hot, black slate that bears his name. They were not relatives, nor were they close personal friends -- the Kennedy family had paid their respects earlier that morning. They were Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and this was the 29th time they have come to this spot to honor the man who shaped their lives.
The Peace Corps began as an offhand remark of Kennedy's that resonated deeply with many young Americans, whose formative years were defined by the expectation that they would soon be at war with the Soviet Union. More than 50 years later, a handful of those early volunteers stood at his gravesite, gazing into his Eternal Flame, some sharing stories of meeting the man as they trained to become “Peace Corpsmen.” They chuckle at the jokes and candid comments he shared as they prepared to leave behind the familiar and dive in to what amounted to a grand geopolitical experiment.
The acting Director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Western Samoa, 1981-83) was in attendance at Arlington, as well as Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala, 1988-91), the President of the National Peace Corps Association. The ceremony was conducted by Chris Austin (Kenya 03-05), President of RPCV/W, in much the same way as it has been since Matthew Erulkar (Zaire 1980-81) began the tradition in 1984.
In the shade of ancient oaks, participants young and old shared their personal reflections on Kennedy and his legacy. They spoke proudly of their work around the world. They spoke of friends made, careers launched, and lessons learned. A young couple came to the realization that without Kennedy, they would most likely never have met. All agreed that that his spirit lives on in the Peace Corps.
Family is the soul of the Kennedy story. In the case of Peace Corps, the President chose Sargent Shriver, his brother-in-law, to make it a reality. With typical Irish wit, Kennedy quipped that "everyone in Washington seemed to think that it was going to be the biggest fiasco in history, and it would be much easier to fire a relative than a friend." Instead, Shriver embraced the assignment, displaying an almost superhuman capacity for organizational management that electrified staff and volunteer alike. He took Kennedy’s vision and created a durable agency from scratch at a speed not seen since Alexander Hamilton built the Department of the Treasury in the early days of the republic. Since its founding, over 210,000 Americans have volunteered. The Peace Corps, like the Kennedys, became a family driven by service and bound by trust.
Here in Washington, RPCVs are actively shaping American foreign and domestic policy, as their experiences abroad drive them to launch careers in the federal government and in other influential institutions. They become teachers, ambassadors, doctors, and business leaders. They continue to travel the world, volunteer in their communities, and eventually start families of their own, where they pass on the spirit of Kennedy and the Peace Corps to the next generation. Click here to read the agency press release on the event and remarks by the Director