Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy challenged volunteers to make a difference around the world by volunteering in the Peace Corps pilot program.
The world was in transition. The African subcontinent was still emerging from colonialism, and the violent unrest that would pave the way to independence for many countries was still a dream. There were two Vietnams - North and South - and the U.S. was not yet embroiled in a bloody, eight-year fight.
Lebanon was a tourist resort and a far-larger Soviet Union was at the height of the Cold War with the West.
Carolyn Brown of Estherville with some of the momentos from her Peace Corps mission to Brazil.
EDN photo by Michael Tidemann
The very mood of America was very different. The year 1961 was still a time of possibilities, of potential. President Kennedy brought a vibrancy and spirit of youth that stood in stark contrast to the Eisenhower years. Many, particularly in the Midwest, thought Nixon was a shoe-in for President. When the poll results continued to come in on the November election in 1960, most American's didn't know who the President was until it was announced Wednesday morning that Kennedy had won.
Kennedy surprised everyone - especially the Republicans. He was the President who would instill a spirit of optimism and hope that would sent forth Peace Corps volunteers around the globe.
Carolyn Brown, now of Estherville, was one of those volunteers.
Kennedy had just been assassinated the previous Nov. 22, 1963, and Brown, then from Rockwell City, was graduating from Iowa State University the following May with a degree in home economics. With Kennedy's words still resounding in her ears, she decided to take up his challenge. Within a month she was at the Peace Corps intensive language school at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Every morning, six days a week, she studied Portuguese for her upcoming assignment to Aquiduanna, Mato Grosso, Brazil, west of Sao Paulo. In the afternoons she studied Brazilian culture.
Three months later she arrived in subtropical ranch country. A railroad zippering the landscape was one of the few signs of civilization. A family welcomed her to share their home with three teenage daughters.
On a treadle sewing machine, Carolyn showed the three girls and many other how to sew. She showed them how to cook and garden. She showed them self-sufficiency, how to take care of themselves and their families.
Fortunately, in the city, Catholic priests from the U.S. had paved the way. "They were kind of used to Americans being there," Carolyn said.
As wet seasons misted into dry, Carolyn came to love the land and the people. On her time off she bussed to Paraguay and Bolivia, strange and wonderful cultures in the perpetually clouded Andes.
And then, before she knew it, her year and nine months were over.
She wasn't long back from Brazil when W.C. Hilburn, superintendent of Estherville High School, telegrammed and asked if she would be interested in teaching ninth-grade home economics. Of course, she would, said Carolyn, and it wasn't long before she was rooming with Carolyn Peterson, another home ec teacher at the high-school level. There was another teacher there too. A high-school vocal music teacher named Donald Brown.
Every five years, Carolyn and other Peace Corps veterans hold a reunion, meeting in places like Arizona, Kansas and Indiana. A couple members of her original group are still in Brazil, though not with the Peace Corps.
And they talk about places like Brazil and Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia. The one memory they share, though, is the rewards they received from giving to others.