In 1961, John F. Kennedy asked for a corps of American volunteers to go abroad, and the Peace Corps was born. Former UK professor Angene Wilson was one of the first to answer his call. She and her husband, Jack, were among the first Peace Corps volunteers in March 1961 as seniors in college.
“Our understanding is that we were probably among the first 100 people to apply,” Angene Wilson said. “It was very exciting. You did feel a little bit like you were on the cutting edge of something. It was very stimulating.”
The couple received notification of their acceptance only a week after their honeymoon via a cable that said, “Report next week to Puerto Rico for Peace Corps training.” They opted to postpone their service and were invited to serve in Liberia the next spring.
Although Peace Corps training now occurs in-country, the early volunteers attended training in the U.S. Jack Wilson’s flight to Cleveland for training was his first. Angene Wilson described the training as being “dawn to dusk” and rather intensive. Looking back, elements of it were also humorous, she said.
“They were showing us the new technology, which was overhead projectors,” Angene Wilson said. They were also trained in giving themselves anti-snake venom shots. They never had to use the shot they packed on themselves, but did give it to a Liberian child at the school where they taught.
“We did simulation activities about what to do if you meet a communist,” Jack Wilson said. “We were there during the Cuban Missile Crisis and could envision our entire families being destroyed by some missile being dropped.”
Though some of the scare seems far-fetched now, the Wilsons heard of at least one volunteer in Indonesia who had to be transferred when Cold War tensions became too great.
A poignant event that occurred while the Wilsons were serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia was the assassination of the man who had created the volunteer force.
“We were at a gas station, and the gas station attendant said, ‘Our president has been shot,’” Angene Wilson said. She said the Liberian people’s close association with the American president was related to the Peace Corps’ activities in the area.
“We did make a difference,” Angene Wilson said. Jack Wilson coached the area’s first basketball team, and led it to win the National Championship. The couple taught English and helped the Liberians with seemingly simple daily tasks during their service.
“I knew a whole bunch of things I didn’t know I knew,” Jack Wilson said, “Simple skills from growing up American.”
He said small things like helping the community read directions for a new tractor seem intuitive, but “they’re not intuitive to someone who has never seen them before.”
The Wilsons did not leave the Peace Corps behind them when they left Liberia. They have kept in touch with many of the people they served abroad with and even “adopted” one young man whom they helped through a higher education.
They have also networked with other returned Kentucky Peace Corps volunteers. The Wilsons worked with the UK Nunn Center for Oral History to collect 100 interviews with Peace Corps volunteers. Most of the interviews are available online. The Wilsons also took the task of preservation a step further by compiling the recently published book “Voices From the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers.” The book is organized by experience and retells different stories of volunteers being applying, being accepted, being trained, serving and returning home.
The Wilsons’ advice to students considering the Peace Corps today, 50 years after the couple applied, was enthusiastic.
“Do it,” Jack Wilson said. “Go some place. It’s an opportunity for you to test yourself.”
“You should think about it,” Angene Wilson said. “Obviously one of the reasons you go is to serve. That’s part of what appealed to young people about Kennedy—he asked people to serve.”