In 1960 John F. Kennedy, then a US senator and presidential candidate, challenged students at the University of Michigan to offer their talents and energy to the world. Soon after, on March 1, 1961, the Peace Corps was created. Its formation was hailed as an act of idealism, a step toward creating peace and understanding against the tense political backdrop of the Cold War. Today, ﬁfty years after Kennedy laid out his vision, the Peace Corps celebrates ﬁve decades as an organization that has enabled Americans to transform the lives of people across the globe—as well as their own.
“Serving in the Peace Corps was an inspiration,” says Tom Klobe, former director of the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa’s Art Gallery. Klobe was a student at UH when the volunteer service was established; when he heard about it, he didn’t think he’d be accepted. “As an art major, I just thought there would be no need for anyone with my abilities, and I did not see my experience as a leader in student activities as relevant to the Peace Corps. I guess I was just naïve and unsure of what I could do,” he recalls. But when Kennedy was assassinated, Klobe felt a responsibility to carry out the president’s vision. He put aside his uncertainties and with his future wife, Delmarie, took the Peace Corps’ written test in 1963. Klobe served in Iran from 1964 to 1966, Delmarie in Malawi. Together, Klobe says, they embarked on an “adventure to serve the country and the world.”
It was in these early days of the Peace Corps that Hawai‘i’s students and leaders played an important role in the developing agency. In 1962 UH Manoa and the Hilo College Center for Cross-Cultural Training and Research designed one of the ﬁrst Peace Corps training centers, with its ﬁeld station in Waipi‘o. That site—isolated, tropical—prepared volunteers for service in nations in Southeast Asia and the Paciﬁc (Fiji, the Philippines, Thailand and other countries), places that differed vastly from the towns, cities and universities where most Peace Corps volunteers were raised and educated.
“Hawai‘i is remote. Waipi‘o Valley is even more remote,” says Walter Jaeckle, a psychologist who came to the Big Island in 1965 to help evaluate whether volunteers were ready to serve abroad. The trainees he observed typically spent three months in Hawai‘i, one to three weeks of them in Waipi‘o Valley.
In the valley, trainees experienced the challenges of rustic living and became immersed in the cultures they would serve. To even enter Waipi‘o volunteers had to hike down steep cliffs (there were no paved roads in those days). They weren’t permitted to speak English. They had no electricity. Trainees slept on the elevated wooden floors of the model houses, living as a family in Thailand or Sarawak might. They cared for pigs and chickens, slaughtering and butchering them for meals, they ﬁshed in the streams with nets. Agricultural workers learned to rely on the land for food. Teachers learned to improvise lessons using materials they found in the valley. After a few days and nights in the settlement, volunteers ventured deep into the valley, where each spent a night completely alone in a hut. This pushed some of them too far. Jaeckle recalls that several volunteers dropped out after Waipi‘o because they realized, “‘Hey, I am not going to live like this. I don’t want to put up with it’”— a realization, Jaeckle says, that was probably best for everyone involved.
During the rest of their training time in Hawai‘i, volunteers were housed at camps in “town” (Pepe‘ekeo, Honomu and Ninole were the sites on the Big Island, along with Waiakea-Uka and Ho‘olehua on Moloka‘i). Here they typically worked with people from the countries they were headed for, learning the language and becoming familiar with cultural traditions. They also learned more about their destined roles as community developers, teachers and agricultural specialists. The groups would meet in abandoned schools, hospitals and other vacant buildings, and the trainees would bunk in nearby dormitories.
Jaeckle worked with 23- and 24-yearolds, recent college graduates who often had a limited view of the world—despite their beliefs to the contrary—and whose education wouldn’t necessarily be useful in the destination countries. “To some, training was like earning another degree. Another check in the box,” Jaeckle says. “This was a drawback.” Still, he says, “It was an incredible time for the volunteers, for the island and for me. We all returned with a broadened view of the world, a sense of tolerance and of what was important in life.”