Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 2002 National Peace Corps Association Conference

Washington, D.C. | June 21, 2002

You have helped to create such miracles; you have shared your desire for a peaceful world; and you have done it with great flair and impact.

Thank you. Thank you so much for your warm welcome. I am very happy that I could join you this morning to celebrate this wonderful idea and magnificent creation called "The Peace Corps".

Over the years, and — WOW — it's been 41 of them! All of you: volunteers, staff and other supporters of The Peace Corps have changed the lives and thinking of so many, many human beings, not just overseas, but right here at home. You have helped to create such miracles; you have shared your desire for a peaceful world; and you have done it with great flair and impact.

When President John F. Kennedy attempted to turn his idea for the establishment of a Peace Corps into a reality, he was met with ridicule from skeptics everywhere, especially in the U.S.A. — but nevertheless, the President called me and drafted me to organize the effort, and serve as the first Director.

I can assure you the call wasn't then as glamorous as it may sound now. After giving me a minimal explanation as to why I had to hop the first plane from my home town then in Chicago and go to Washington, he simply said, "Sarge, if this thing fails, it's going to be a lot easier for me to fire a relative than a political friend." 

Well, it didn't seem wise to start working for a man who spoke of firing me so breezily, but President Kennedy wasn't the sort of man you could refuse. So, I left my well-paying, comfortable, secure job. I said goodbye to my happy family and home, and headed to Washington.

From the beginning, I was well aware of the thousands of suspicious eyes peering over the shoulders of everyone involved in starting "The Peace Corps". As a new and highly controversial government agency, we knew we would have only one chance to make "The Peace Corps" work. As with "parachute jumpers", our brand new, unprecedented chute had to open successfully the first time.

It is a tribute to all of you who volunteered in the early days of the Peace Corps that the parachute did open. You made "The Peace Corps" a success and saved me from being fired! You triumphed in the face of those who scoffed and joked about the proposed new program. And there were thousands of scoffers in the press and in politics.

Back in 1964, I wrote an article for National Geographic in which I called the Volunteers "Ambassadors of Good Will".  I am delighted to see that this truth has withstood the test of time. You have presented America's best face to the world. It is because of your skills, and willingness to share with those in need, that so many who lived in misery, now live in hope! Today's Volunteers face great challenges, and they are meeting them with the same unending energy, and never-say-die enthusiasm that all of you possessed and delivered.

President Bush's recent decision to double the number of Peace Corps Volunteers is certainly a step in the right direction, but I believe we still have a long way to climb before we can rest. America is much larger in population and much richer than it was in 1961. There is no doubt that we can support a doubling of Volunteers. In fact, the United States could train and send many more than 15,000. I like the sound of 50,000 myself; I think it has a nice ring to it!

Today, here, in our post-September 11 world, the third goal of Peace Corps, "to teach Americans about the developing countries," is more important than ever. That's why it is such a joy to see so many of you here. The message must go out from this Conference to all Americans that our relationships with the people of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe are vitally important. We must increase and teach understanding and tolerance before we can hope to achieve world peace!

In closing, I would like to congratulate and thank all who have served as Peace Corps Volunteers, and the staff members who have supported them. I wish the current Peace Corps Volunteers and staff, and their successors, and all throughout the world who come in contact with "The Peace Corps", success, fulfillment, and ultimately, true peace.

Thank you all.