Corps Values

Forty years after heeding a call to action, two Peace Corps poineers from Maryland recall how the experience changed their lives

March 06, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Brenda Brown Schoonover was a senior at Morgan State College when John F. Kennedy challenged America with the blunt passage in his 1961 inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

The words grabbed the new generation entering the 1960s.

"We took it seriously," says Schoonover, diplomat in residence at the University of North Carolina and former U.S. ambassador to Togo.

The buoyant young president promised a "new frontier," inspiring many with new energy, excitement and idealism. Plodding old-fogyism was banished. "The world is changing," the new president said. "The old era is ending. The old ways will not do."

"We really believed it," Schoonover says.

As one of his first presidential acts, in March 1961, Kennedy created a new volunteer foreign service initiative he called the Peace Corps.

"We have in this country," Kennedy said, "an immense reservoir of ... men and women anxious to sacrifice their energies and time and toil to the cause of world peace and human progress."

He was right. The Peace Corps turns 40 this month. More than 161,000 people have served in 134 countries. About 7,000 volunteers serve today in 76 countries. Brenda Brown Schoonover was one of the first to sign up.

"I took the Peace Corps exam June 12, 1961," Schoonover says. Now 62, she was then 22 and she had just graduated from Morgan. The next day she got a telegram accepting her as a volunteer and offering her a spot in the Philippines.

She became one of the first four Peace Corps volunteers from Maryland. Another was Stanley Mazaroff, also 62 and now a partner with the Venable, Baetjer and Howard law firm. In March 1961 he was just finishing his first year in law school.

He'd been bumming around the country during the summer of 1960 and heard Kennedy speak at the Democratic convention in San Francisco.

"I was really taken with him," Mazaroff says. "I liked him very much. He really made me interested in the Peace Corps. I thought it was a great idea.

"Kennedy created a sense of idealism for a lot of people. For me it was the idea of serving your country and, secondly, having an adventure. It was just what I was looking for."

He took his test on June 12, too.

"When I got a call I was absolutely thrilled," he says. He and Schoonover both now rank as Charter Members of the Peace Corps, among the first 200 volunteers to go abroad.

The first volunteers were divided into two two-year tours, one went to Ghana, in Africa, the other to the Philippines. Mazaroff went to the Philippines, like Schoonover.

"I told my folks this was the decision I'd made," he says. "They just looked at me and said, `You just finished first in your class. You have a possibility of making something of yourself. Now you want to go live in the jungle! Why do you want to commit suicide?!'

"That was their take on this thing - like this was the looniest thing in the world to do."

Schoonover's mother, Elizabeth Durham, who still lives on Springdale Avenue in Forest Park, was a little more reserved, at least in front of her daughter. She looked on a map and, unhappily, found the Philippines were about as far from Baltimore as you can get without leaving the planet.

"I never held her back from anything," she says. "I tried to encourage her to do whatever she wanted to do that was honorable."

Her daughter had been a pioneer a little earlier. In the 1950s, she was one of seven African-American students who integrated Catonsville High School.

"I made up my mind that when she left I wasn't going to cry in front of her," Durham says. "I was just going to have a nice, pleasant face the whole time she was at the airport. [But] from the time she went through those doors and she got on that plane and I knew she couldn't see me, I performed! I acted like a raving maniac. I cried. I screamed; I almost fainted. Here was my only child and going across the world to the jungles of the Philippines, alone!"

Schoonover and four other women went to Magaroa, a town too tiny to appear on most maps of the island of Luzon, to teach English.

"Twelve hours by train," Schoonover says. "We taught in four different towns. I was the lucky one to teach in the town in which we lived. The others took jitneys out to the other towns."

Memorable moments

She cherishes an image from the first day she arrived in the Philippines for a month's training at a university outside Manila.

"We were taken by bus," she recalls. "It was raining one of those monsoon kinds of rain. [But] all along the route were these little kids lined up with big signs that said `Welcome President Kennedy's Peace Corps.' I remember that being so poignant, these little kids standing with their umbrellas and their signs."

Magaroa was in the Philippine province of Camarines Sur, where Stan Mazaroff became volunteer leader.

"I didn't want to do this administrative thing," he says. "But the good thing was that I'd have a jeep and I could explore on my own. Nobody else had a jeep."

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