June 24, 2002 - Washington Post: Party Forty! Better Late Than Never, the Peace Corps Marks a Milestone

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Party Forty! Better Late Than Never, the Peace Corps Marks a Milestone

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Party Forty! Better Late Than Never, the Peace Corps Marks a Milestone

By Jennifer Frey Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, June 24, 2002; Page C01

"Congratulations, Grandpa!" "Congratulations, Grandpa!"

Herded by Maria Shriver into a private reception room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel Saturday night, a bevy of Shriver grandchildren converged upon Sargent Shriver and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to offer hugs and best wishes to the man who was being honored for his long service to the Peace Corps.

At the time, Shriver was discussing his impending arrival at the Peace Corps' 40th anniversary dinner later that night -- an arrival he would make astride a white-and-chrome Harley-Davidson motorcycle, dark shades wrapped around his eyes.

"Oh, it was about 50 years ago when I was last on one of those," he said with a laugh before turning to greet another grandchild. "In November, I'll be 87, you know."

While officially celebrating its 40th birthday, the organization that Shriver helped establish -- he served as the first director, from 1961 to 1966, and has been involved ever since -- was actually celebrating, as much of the literature noted, "40 years plus one."

The anniversary festivities, which spanned the weekend, were originally scheduled for September but were postponed after the terrorist attacks. The dinner was billed as a "Salute to Peace Corps Giants" and, in addition to Shriver, honored C. Payne Lucas (a co-founder of Africare and an eight-year Peace Corps volunteer) and the legendary Marjorie May. May, who was unable to attend the celebration because of health problems, went to Malaysia as a 65-year-old retiree, then went on to raise money for the organization through garage sales and other grass-roots events.

"We feel that, ironically, it's even better to have the conference at this time because the world has changed since Sept. 11 and we're able to examine the relevance of the Peace Corps in the new world," said Dane Smith, the president of the National Peace Corps Association, which hosted the events.

According to Gaddi H. Vasquez, current director of the Peace Corps, applications are up 16 percent since Sept. 11 and visits to the organization's Web site are up 80 percent. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush called for a doubling of the Peace Corps over a five-year span. Now, all that's left is for the organization to figure out how to expand its infrastructure to train and manage that many new volunteers -- and how to keep those volunteers safe in a time when global terrorism is of great concern.

"The first test we have to meet is safety and security," said Vasquez, who already has received overtures from Afghanistan's transitional government, which hopes to reestablish the Peace Corps in that country for the first time since the Soviet invasion. "Unless a country can meet that standard, we can't send volunteers."

Saturday night's dinner, however, was less about the serious questions facing the organization -- questions addressed at seminars and conferences held throughout the weekend -- than about celebrating its history. The ballroom and the two prior receptions were packed with former volunteers, who introduced themselves by country: Guatemala, India, Fiji, Malaysia, Brazil, Iran . . . The list went on.

"I think I met you when you were carrying the Iranian flag!" said one guest (who had introduced herself as "Guatemala") upon encountering Donna Shalala, who was serving as an honorary co-chairwoman of the event. Shalala served in Iran from 1962 to 1964. The former secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration admitted to carrying the flag at another anniversary celebration years ago.

"That was probably the last time I carried the Iranian flag," she said, laughing. "And I didn't disclose that when I was Cabinet secretary."

Across the room, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who served a tour in Fiji, surveyed the group and offered up this joke: "The problem with this evening is there are too many Republicans here!" Asked to identify another one in the crowd, he laughed and pointed to a woman nearby. It was his wife, Betsi deRaismes Shays, who also volunteered in Fiji.

Shays and Shalala talked about their Peace Corps experience as one of the most important in their lives, and they weren't alone. Almost everyone gushed about their tours, calling them "life-changing," "a watershed," "the defining experience of my life."

Surveying the room, Maria Shriver remarked that she hoped her children would meet and speak with some of the volunteers. She did two summer tours for the Peace Corps as a teenager, in Senegal and Tunisia, and grew up with a houseful of volunteers.

"People in the organization have such an affection for Daddy because most of these people felt their lives were changed in every way by their experiences," she said.

Shriver's husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, planned to attend the event when it was scheduled for September, but was unable to make it on Saturday; he's currently filming the third installment of the "Terminator" films. "He's a very big supporter of Daddy," Maria Shriver said.

The grandchildren did come, though -- 11 of Sargent and Eunice Shriver's 15 (four of whom are Maria's children) -- and some laughed when they saw Grandpa on a motorcycle. Shriver's arrival also was greeted with great amusement by the volunteers. It was an inside joke of sorts -- motorcycle use while on tour has been one of the organization's most hotly debated issue over the decades. Shriver didn't hold back his opinion on the issue.

"Motorcycles," he said, "are the way to go."

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