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Peace Corps Five-O

Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011

Peace Corps Five-O

 
Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps into existence. Since that time, more than 300 Santa Clara grads — as well as faculty, staff, and current students — have served (and are serving) as volunteers across the globe: from Africa to Latin America, Asia to the former Soviet Union.
 
This month kicks off a worldwide launch of “Peace Corps Month.” For us here at Santa Clara Magazine, it also inaugurates the beginning of a series of blog entries from returned and current Peace Corps volunteers spanning nations and decades, with plans for a special feature in the summer magazine.
 
For your humble editor, this is a bit of a labor of love: The Peace Corps took me to Ukraine in 1994, so I bring both an earned respect and clear-eyed assessment of what is good and bad and beautiful about the Peace Corps and what it does — whether the experience is the toughest job you’ll ever love or, as you cope with what is an enormous government bureaucracy in its own right (with all attendant acronyms and responsibilities), the longest vacation you’ll ever endure. Like so much in life, what you get out of the experience has a fair amount to do with what you put into it. Plus a bit of context.
 
Kicking things off for our first-person accounts is an entry from John J. Johnck ’60, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru in the mid-1960s.
 
Do you have a Peace Corps story or photos to share? Write us at scmagazine@scu.edu. And read on.
 
— Steven Boyd Saum, Editor
 
• • •

AGENTS OF CHANGE
John J. Johnck ’60
Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru — 1964–66
 
When President Kennedy was assassinated, I was at work as a back office assistant at the stock broker Reynolds & Co. in San Francisco. I heard the news and recalled his famous line: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” So, at the age of 26, I filled in the Peace Corps application and was accepted to join a university education program as a math teacher targeted for Peru. I was elated that I could give back.
 
Sixty of us were trained for Peace Corps work as teachers and “agents of change” at the University of Washington in Seattle. In order to teach in Spanish, it was mandatory that we be fluent in Spanish to graduate and go to Peru. We were immediately thrown into Spanish class from 3 to 11 p.m., five days a week — and eight hours each on Saturday and Sunday. The immersion worked for me. However, 15 fellow trainees were “de-selected.”
 
When I first arrived in Peru, I had to use Spanish immediately. It was scary to walk into a meeting and try and understand and communicate at the same time. Jokes were impossible to understand. Fortunately, the Peruvians I spoke with realized I was new to their language and were patient with me. Slowly I learned and even dreamed in Spanish.
 
 
The assignment collapses
During 1964 and 1965, the Vietnam War had a powerful affect on America’s image overseas. In Latin America, the Peace Corps was pegged as an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially on college campuses in Peru. Those of us assigned to public universities were met with sit-ins, anti U.S.A.–Peace Corps graffiti, and protests. My Peace Corps teachers college assignment collapsed. It was left to me to find alternative work.
 
In Lima I met some fellow Peace Corps volunteers who were leaving after their two-year assignment. They were auditors for the Peruvian National Association of Credit Unions. They introduced me to the association president, who immediately asked me to join and help to protect the work they were doing. Credit Unions played an important role in Peru, because the banks only catered to the upper classes and to Lima’s professional business and government employees. That meant 98 percent of the country had limited access to banking. Churches, unions, agricultural workers, and farmers turned to credit unions.
 
I performed about 10 audits of credit unions all over Peru from January 1965 to December 1966. A third were so poorly run that I recommended they be shut down. In these instances, a follow-up audit by my superiors usually validated the lack of ledgers, bank statements, board minutes, and cooperation from those particular credit union leaders.
 
I traveled with my sleeping bag and slept wherever I could—so long as it was free. My Peruvian Peace Corps stipend was only $100 per month. The Peru National Association paid nada for Peace Corps assistance. I was responsible for my own shelter, food, transportation, and other living expenses. I sometimes slept in a priest’s rectory, credit union office couch, or in other Peace Corps volunteers’ rooms. Occasionally, I would find a dump for $5/month during an audit.
 
 

Save the credit union
My most interesting audit was for six months in Iquitos, at the headwaters of the Amazon River. I assisted the association president and vice president with a four-week audit. After their board approved the audit, they left me behind to implement the audit recommendations. This credit union was the second biggest in Peru, with 5,000 members and a capitalization of U.S. $5 million. It was founded by Padre David, a Spanish missionary, 15 years prior; he was still on the board of directors and served as treasurer.
 
The padre built this credit union with deposits from Iquitos businesses, doctors, pharmacists, teachers, working people, and small farmers. Small loans were made out the back door by the padre, with the credit committee only told weeks later. Needless to say, the padre was not pleased that I was assigned to stay and implement the audit.
 
My work there was difficult; we had shouting matches in public. However, there were many credit union committee members who approved the audit, and who were concerned about the solidity and future of their credit union.
 
Padre David was demoted during my tenure there; lending policies were tightened; interest rates on loans and dividend rates increased; and uncollectible debts were written off. I slept next door to the credit union office, sandwiched between it and the outdoor fish market that set up every morning at 4. With that location, many flies lived there, too; the chameleons who fed there ate well.
 
I returned to San Francisco in December 1966. The credit union in Iquitos is still in existence in 2010, despite the efforts of the leftist government that took over Peru to close it down in the 1970s. This is an “AMDG” outcome which gladdens the heart of a Class of 1960 old alum of Santa Clara University.
 
John J. Johnck
San Francisco

 

Tomorrow, read about what John Johnck has been doing in business and politics since finishing his Peace Corps service in Peru in '66. 

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