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Michael Kelly: Peace Corps Turning 40

Michael Kelly

Douglas Wells of Omaha, born five days after the assassination of President Kennedy, grew up to embody a lasting part of JFK's legacy - the Peace Corps.

Wells, now 37 and a diplomat in Hong Kong, not only assisted people in the Baltic nation of Estonia as a Peace Corps volunteer but also left them with a most positive impression of Americans. Wells was a national hero - he found their long-buried church bell.

It's an amazing story. Germans had overrun the country in 1943 and looked for brass to make into bullets. Six villagers in Emmaste risked their lives one night by removing the 450-pound bell from their Lutheran church, burying it in the woods and swearing each other to secrecy.

Through decades of Soviet repression, it remained there. Only in the late 1980s did the survivors reveal their secret. But they couldn't find the bell.

In 1994, people appealed to Wells, a graduate of Westside High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The son of engineers James and Paula Wells had a metal detector. After several December days of fruitless searches, the instrument screeched - the bell was found.

Nearly 52 years after its removal, the bell was placed back in the church tower. The nation's president hailed Wells and said the bell's return was a present to all Estonians. Let freedom ring.

In the 40 years since Kennedy established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, the program hasn't always produced the drama and joy of Wells' bell. But with 162,000 volunteers having served in 134 countries, the corps has toiled and tolled for peace.

"The cumulative effect has been enormous," said State Sen. Chris Beutler of Lincoln, a 1966-67 Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey. "Volunteers have come back for 40 years, having seen America from the outside - through the eyes of foreigners. It adds a realistic perspective and influence on our foreign policy and our way of looking at the world."

The idealistic origin of the Peace Corps precedes JFK's official order and even the stirring words of his inaugural, "Ask not what your country can do for you. ..."

It began with an impromptu 2 a.m. speech at the University of Michigan on Oct. 14, 1960, where 10,000 students waited up to hear candidate Kennedy.

He issued a challenge: Would you be willing to serve the country and work for peace in developing nations?

As the Peace Corps marks its 40th anniversary, the agency's impact can be measured not only by projects in Third World countries but also by the number of volunteers who have remained in public service. Among them are Donna Shalala (Iran, 1962-64), former secretary of health and human services; Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut (Dominican Republic, 1966-68); Thomas E. Gouttierre, dean of international programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; and various congressmen, judges and mayors.

Other volunteers have included Richard Sanders (Brazil, 1966-68), who played newsman Les Nessman on "WKRP in Cincinnati"; Bob Vila (Panama, 1969-70), who hosted "This Old House"; Chris Matthews (Swaziland, 1968-70), host of "Hardball With Chris Matthews"; Michael McCaskey, board chairman of the Chicago Bears; and the presidents of Johnson & Johnson and Levi Strauss.

Beutler, an all-city quarterback at Omaha Benson High, played safety for Yale. You might say he went from safety to risk by signing up to teach English in a foreign country.

"It was a great awakening for me," he said. "I had never been immersed in a fully functioning foreign culture. I was 21, and it was an extremely broadening experience."

Ron Psota of Omaha, coordinator of international students at Bellevue University, grew up in the farming community of North Loup, Neb., and helped farmers in India. The UNL architecture graduate said the experience "changed my life totally."

He and his wife, Eileen Wirth, have raised two children adopted in India, one from Mother Teresa's orphanage who serves today in the Air Force.

Psota said the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group in Nebraska has a mailing list of about 200. With 7,300 volunteers today in 76 countries, the Peace Corps has a budget of $265 million. "In a lot of ways," Psota said, "it's been some of the best money the U.S. has spent."

Michael Kelly (Estonia)

This article was originally published in the Omaha Herald on Tuesday, February 20, 2001. By Michael Kelly

Omaha Herald

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