The Peace Corps Legacy

By Deborah Harding -- January 2011

He was known simply as Sarge in the Peace Corps. There was no disrespect in that. He was our trusted leader. We were in our 20s when we met him in the early 60s and revered him throughout our lives. Sarge, our iconic leader, created the enduring institution of the Kennedy presidency. We loved him for it and always will.

While serving in the Peace Corps director's office during the Carter Administration, I was invited to dinner once at Sarge's to talk about East Africa in preparation for a trip he and his family were planning. He taped a big map of Africa on the wall next to the dining room table. Ask Ms. Harding questions about Africa, he urged his two youngest sons. Tell them how to greet people in Swahili, he said to me. He was the man who told the Congress that a Peace Corps volunteer would be different from "The Ugly American" of the 50s. They would speak the local language and be versed in the local culture in which they served. This alone was a defining aspect of Peace Corps service which has drawn tens of thousands to serve. Sarge embraced service and made it a critical focus of our lives.

In the 1980s, I ran the Peace Corps Institute located in Sarge's law firm, Fried Frank Harris Shriver and Kempelman. It was heady to work directly with this gracious man whose dynamism and vision propelled us to work tirelessly to make sure the Peace Corps survived the Reagan Administration's worst hopes to kill it and VISTA.

At his book party at the World Bank in 2004, I stood in line to have my book signed. He had given me a kiss on the cheek earlier in the event as I stood talking to Bobby. I was sure he had mistaken me for someone else. He had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. When my turn came to hand him my book for his signature, I said my name and: Sarge, I know of no other American I admire as much as I admire you. He smiled and started to write in the book: I'll never forget how much you admired me, Debbie Harding. That was the last time I spoke to him.

Sarge, our most loved leader, was filled with love - for mankind, for the Peace Corps, for his beloved wife and children and for all of us. We return it with tsunami force and will keep him in our hearts and prayers throughout our lives.