My Dad the Peace Corps Volunteer

The Peace Corps turned 53 years old on March 1, 2014, so last week was Peace Corps Week.  As a currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), it’s my job to teach you about the work done by PCVs around the world.  Currently there are around 7,200 active Volunteers working in 65 different countries “promoting world peace and friendship.”  We also do “real” work to keep the tax payers happy.  The Peace Corps has an operating budget of 356 million USD, which works out to about $50,000 for every active volunteer.  Sounds like a bargain to me, considering that a new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane costs around $200 million.  That’s probably not a fair comparison, but as this analyst says, “The Peace Corps, whose spending is dwarfed by that of the Department of Defense, might even be the best security bargain in the entire budget.”  Anyway, that’s a topic for another day…

Back in the good old days of the 1960s, our dashing young president, John F. Kennedy, declared that there should be a Peace Corps through Executive Order 10924, signed on March 1, 1961.  6 months later, Congress followed up with the official Peace Corps Act that hashed out the details and made JFK’s promise a reality (Public Law 87-293).  This is the declaration of purpose from the Act:

The Congress of the United States declares that it is the policy of the United States and the purpose of this Act to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.

…didn’t make it through that ridiculously long run-on sentence?  Well basically there are three goals: 1. Help out with technical skills. 2. Teach Ethiopians about America 3. Teach Americans about Ethiopia.  Therefore, two of my three goals here in Ethiopia are social.  I have a mandate from the United States Congress to hang out with people, make friends, drink tea, talk about America, talk about Ethiopia, and write a blog.  So I guess that is how you “promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps.”  Here’s to government mandated friends!

You can read more about what Peace Corps Ethiopia is up to in the 2013 Annual Report that just came out this week.  I’m on page 12!  Or you can read about the Peace Corps on the official website.  Or download the fact sheet if you’re too busy to read a real report.

During the organization’s 53 years, over 215,000 Americans have been sent abroad to 139 different countries where they’ve worked on all sorts of grassroots projects.  One of those volunteers was my father, Gerry Copeland.  He served as a health volunteer in India with his first wife, Kathy, between 1967 and 1969.  They focused on family planning  as Indian officials and world economists realized that India’s birth rate could lead to significant challenges in the near future as the country accommodated the newest members of its family.

My father, Gerry Copeland, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in India 1967-69.

My father, Gerry Copeland, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in India 1967-69.

Dad and Kathy in India as PCVs sometime between 1967 and 69.  Judging by the beard, I think this photo was from the later days of service.

Dad and Kathy in India as PCVs sometime between 1967 and 69. Judging by the beard, I think this photo was from the later days of service.

From what I understand, the Peace Corps India program focused on many different goals, one of which was family planning.  It was a huge and diverse program cumulatively hosting 4,325 Peace Corps Volunteers between 1961 and 1976.  By 1967, Dad’s training group must have been around the 50th or 60th.  (For comparison, I’m part of Group 8 in Ethiopia since our program reopened in 2007).  He was in good company among his fellow PCVs and maintained contact with some of those friends for the rest of his life.  After a bit of research I found a few notable people who served in India at the same time.  Lillian Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s mother, joined the Peace Corps in 1966 to go to India.  She was 68 at the time.  Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club for 18 years, served as a PCV in India from 1967 to 1969.  Ronald Tschetter, the Director of the Peace Corps between 2006 and 2009, served with his wife in India from 1966 to 1968 in community health.

Dad lived in the Bihar state in Northern India.  I remember hearing stories about failed family planning discussions, bad vasectomies, corrupt officials, school construction, delicious food, welcoming people, beautiful scenery, and adventure.   He told us about the community Guru who could, Dad swore, stop his own heart during deep meditation.   He told us about his host mom who taught him how to properly prepare Indian curries.  He told us about sneaking into some official building in the capital to drink Indian Pale Ale beers with “fuddy duddy” bureaucrats and mysterious government men.

Unfortunately, I don’t know very many details about his service, and I would love to be able to swap stories from the “field” with him.  I wonder how many similarities there are between our two services, separated by more than 40 years.  I grew up with stories about the Peace Corps and knew of its existence for as long as I can remember.   However, I didn’t decide to actually serve until about a year or two after Dad died, so I never had the opportunity to talk to him directly about it.  Regardless I’m looking forward to returning to America to talk to some of his Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) friends and combing through his chaotic slide collection.

But I can speak to the impacts his service had on his life.  Dad’s best Indian friend was a young man named Aashish Chowdhry who stayed in touch over the years.  Dad made numerous trips back to India/Nepal over his lifetime and his fascination with India continued for the rest of his life.

  • I remember accompanying him on a convoluted grocery shopping trip in Spokane.  We were trying to find exotic ingredients for the Indian food he was going to prepare for a dinner party.  Where do you find authentic cheese cloth in 1990’s Spokane, Washington?  Remember this was before the “foody” movement made ethnic food accessible to the masses.  Saag Panner for all!  Whatever, the challenges, I grew up eating excellent homemade Indian food at dinner parties that were accompanied with conversations and slideshows about India.
  • I remember sitting through more than one impromptu lesson on the importance of self-sufficiency, resilience, and de-centralized infrastructure.  Paul Ehrlich was a household name in our house as Dad would rant about population growth and the strains it imposed.
  • I remember Dad dusting off his derelict, and probably unintelligible, Hindi whenever we bumped into an Indian living in America.
  • We have a “Buddha niche” in our house where Mom and Dad kept memorabilia from India and old photos.  Dad’s spirituality waxed and waned over the years, but he would often identify as a Buddhist.  Occasionally he would make some deep philosophical observation, based on Buddhism, or at least some version of it.

I may not have all the details about Dad’s Peace Corps years, and I look forward to learning more, but I do know that it influenced him in so many ways.  He was never embarrassed to try something new.  He seemed to always have a good instinct about people and situations.  He focused on the positives in life and didn’t dwell on the negatives.   His sense of adventure and exploration never quit.  I like to think that these qualities came, in part, from those “conditions of hardship” that 215,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have faced over the past 53 years while promoting friendship and world peace.

Gerry’s big grin is remembered by most people who knew him and I can picture him now, grinning his way through another awkward cultural exchange, just like I do almost daily, 40 years later in Ethiopia.

This is the official directory of Peace Corps Volunteers.  I found this in our Addis Ababa office.

This is the official directory of Peace Corps Volunteers. I found this in our Addis Ababa office.

This is Tom Tuttle from Tacoma as featured in the Peace Corps parody film "Volunteers."  He's an all American boy from Washington State University's engineering department.  In this scene he's singing WSU's fight song.  "...Win the day for crimson and gray, best in the west we know you'll all do your best.  so on on on on fight till the end.  honor and glory you must win.  So fight fight fight for Washington state and victory!!"  Dad went to WSU for a year before transferring to UW.  I studied engineering and Dad studied architecture.  Is Tom Tuttle from Tacoma a composite character of Dad and I?  Creepy...

This is Tom Tuttle from Tacoma (played by John Candy) as featured in the Peace Corps parody film “Volunteers.” He’s an all American boy from Washington State University’s engineering department. In this scene he’s singing WSU’s fight song. “…Win the day for crimson and gray, best in the west we know you’ll all do your best. so on on on on fight till the end. honor and glory you must win. So fight fight fight for Washington state and victory!!” Dad went to WSU for a year before transferring to UW. I studied engineering and Dad studied architecture. Is Tom Tuttle from Tacoma a composite character of Dad and I? Creepy…

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About copelaf

photographer, writer, engineer, eater, traveler, and - occasionally - a thinker.
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11 Responses to My Dad the Peace Corps Volunteer

  1. emilycdoerr says:

    Forrest this is so amazing. I’m so glad you wrote it, I can’t wait for you to get back so we can swap stories, and I can’t wait to see the amazing things you’ll do next.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    Great post Forrest! I remember talking with your dad soon after I got back from Peace Corps – it was so nice to have someone in Spokane to chat with about my experience in a more familiar way. Even though he’s not around anymore, it’ll be really cool for you to relive his experiences through photos and other memorabilia.

  3. Dawn Whipp says:

    What an unusual legacy. Two generations of PCV in one family. I wonder how often that happens.
    I have a request, Forrest. My brother is trying to find a woman by the name of Becky Smith. Obviously, trying to find someone with the last name of Smith and whose parents names are John and Mary, it’s near impossible. She served in Costa Rica, a PCV, ~1986-88. She was from Minnesota. Next time you are in Addis, if you could look her up and get any information, I and my brother would really appreciate it.
    Thanks, Forrest. Keep up the good work.
    Dawn Whipp

    • copelaf says:

      Hello Dawn,

      I didn’t forget about this…just been busy with stuff here in Ethiopia. Anyway, I did get a chance to check alumni book at the PCE office in Addis Ababa last weekend when I was there. The book is the 1993 edition. Also I think it’s an opt in list…so may not be totally comprehensive. I looked up Volunteers in Costa Rica, but didn’t see any Beckys or Rebeccas. I found 3 with the last name of Smith.
      Andrew M. 1983 to 1985
      Olive Jean E. 1980
      Zeva I. 1964 to 1966

      I’m sure there is a better listing of RPCVs online. But I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to do good internet searches here with my slow internet, so you might have better luck. OR… just ask your son. I’m sure he knows where the listing of RPCVs is located.

      send me an email if you have any other questions: copelaf@gmail.com

  4. Margie Heller says:

    Carl Pope was a member of Gerry’s India group!

  5. Sara Baldwin says:

    Thanks Forrest, great post! I learned to enjoy and cook curries from Gerry too. I remember his meeting some Hindi-speaking Indian motel owners in Florida, and they loved him!

  6. copelaf says:

    The Peace Corps office decided to pick this story up for a press release on Father’s Day 2014. See the release here: http://www.peacecorps.gov/media/forpress/press/2402/

  7. Pingback: Two Years, Endless Challenges, Boundless Growth | Tales From The Big Country

  8. Pingback: Sunset for Shalin | Forrest Copeland

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  10. Pingback: Hazy Memories in India | Fotos

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