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John C. McCarthy was first Peace Corps Country Director in Thailand
1413,217~24253~1715552,00.html, John C. McCarthy was first Peace Corps Country Director in Thailand
Claremont attorney directed Southeast Asia efforts in early years of the Peace Corps
By Debbie Council
Claremont author and attorney John C. McCarthy is not one to sit on the sidelines. He's been referred to as the "Father of the Environmental Impact Report," the "Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases" and a Renaissance man. He's authored a number of books on insurance and employment law. And he just sold his favorite pastime -- the 40-foot yacht Swingtime.
The shipshape 79-year old catalyst of bad-faith lawsuits won the bronze medal in his age group at the National Ski Championships at Park City, Utah, in March. On several occasions, the 6-foot-2-inch McCarthy has witnessed history in the making.
During World War II, Ensign McCarthy was the Fighter Director officer aboard the radar picket destroyer USS Taylor escorting the Missouri and two other ships into Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. Four weeks earlier, he's confident that he heard the voices of the Enola Gay crew returning from dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
He witnessed the beginnings of the Vietnam war and was accused of being a CIA agent. In the 1970s, several of his landmark cases changed the course of law. And in 1989, he was named Trial Lawyer of the Year by the California Employment Lawyer's Association.
But it was something that President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961 that altered McCarthy's course in life -- "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." McCarthy went to Washington to offer his services -- for what, he wasn't sure.
Several weeks later he received a call at home from Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps, inquiring whether McCarthy would be interested in becoming the director of the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia.
That night, McCarthy told his wife, Lori, whom he had married in 1960, the job would require giving up his established law practice, renting out their house and putting everything they owned in storage. He said they would have to move their two children, ages 1 and 2, say goodbye to friends and relatives and live for two or three years in a country with one of the lowest per capita incomes and highest malaria rates in the world, where the average temperature was 95.
"Where the native language was based on Sanskrit, the distance away going east was the same as it was going west (11,000 miles), a place called Thailand," McCarthy said. "I asked her, "What should I tell them?' She said, "When do we leave?' "
And so began one of the most rewarding and challenging chapters in the McCarthys' lives from 1963 to 1966. An experience he likened to "the wildest horse I've ever ridden."
Thailand was the only Asian country that the Peace Corps operated in at that time.
"I felt it was particularly challenging because of that. The Korean War had left a very bad taste about most Americans in China," he said. "I felt we're going to bring a different type of America to an Asian country."
McCarthy said he and Lori were swept up by Kennedy, who inspired idealism in America.
"When Kennedy came on the scene, our relations with China were very poor and Kennedy had this amazing ability to bring a new attitude toward the world as well as the new frontier domestically," he said. "He spoke of America's destiny to be a good neighbor and powerful neighbor and a good friend."
Next door to the southeast, the Vietnam War was two years away from full-scale U.S. troop involvement. Thailand was the nerve center of the escalating conflict. Kennedy and Shriver wanted the Peace Corps as separate as possible so that it would not become an instrument of foreign policy, he said. Radio Hanoi and Radio Peking broadcast that McCarthy was the new CIA agent.
The Vietnam War aside, the McCarthys found Bangkok, their live-in staff of five and two-story Thai house charming. They described a home located on a canal, with large roof overhangs that intercepted the slashing monsoon rains. Fans twirling from tall ceilings and breezes flowing through high window screens comforted the family on muggy days.
"I tried to live as much like a volunteer as possible and the volunteers noticed that," he said.
For Lori, 72, it was as much her experience as his. McCarthy and Shriver regarded the position as a husband-and-wife operation. When he was traveling, she hosted incoming volunteers.
"She became the mother hen of 300 to 400 volunteers who came in for physicals once a year and seminars," he said.
They found the people and culture charming. Siblings Michael and Mary McCarthy were joined by their new sister Sheila Siri McCarthy, who was born in August 1963, nine months after the family arrived. The McCarthys received special permission to use the queen's middle name Siri, meaning pretty. The Daily Bulletin ran a photograph of John McCarthy holding his baby.
"In Thailand, if you touch a baby with light skin, it brings you good luck. There would be a long line coming in to touch the baby," Lori McCarthy said. "Our kids got tired of it."
One of their staff, Sompone, who oversaw everything including their security, warned the couple about unarmed men who would climb their walls, "Just looking for things left lying around that you didn't need," he said, smiling.
Chores were a bit different there. Lori remembers that clothing had to be washed by hand because there was no washing machine.
"Everything had to be cooked from scratch. You couldn't send the children out in the back yard unless they had someone with them because of the water," she said.
McCarthy is proud of what the Peace Corps volunteers achieved. On the wall in his den, there's a collection of black-and-white framed photos depicting the simple life of a Peace Corps volunteer and their quarters -- a house on stilts to keep out snakes and floodwater and high enough to allow water buffalo to roam beneath.
Peace Corps volunteers taught English and lab technicians conducted classes for pregnant women and on personal hygiene and taught Thai nurses good sanitation procedures. McCarthy said it was frustrating for the lab technicians because what they took for granted in equipment in the United States did not exist in Thailand for the most part, and they were not able to perform at the level they would have liked.
Each volunteer was issued only two items: an electric fan for areas with electricity, and a book locker of 100 paperback books. They had to depend on the same things the Thai people used, he said. Peace Corps volunteers lived and worked with a Thai co-worker. The volunteer did not displace any Thai employee or workers, he said. They had to speak the language fluently, understand the people and fit in with the culture.
The white-haired, mustachioed McCarthy bristles and his blue eyes narrow at the thought of television ads that depicted Peace Corps volunteers standing on the roof of a school pounding nails or standing knee deep in mud, digging a ditch to increase the drainage or laying bricks for a road. It sent the wrong message, he said.
"That is not the Peace Corps that we wanted. Bear in mind, that shows that (the volunteer) came into the country with goodies on his back. A talent for building schools, a talent for building highways or making a water system work and then helping them build it," he said.
"The purpose of the Peace Corps volunteer in that area should be to listen to what their problems are with a post-country national as his co-worker, working out the problems with his co-worker and letting his co-worker organize the people themselves to do the job and leave the Peace Corps volunteer out of that spotlight."
McCarthy set up the malaria eradication program which helped reduce what he described as the most devastating disease in that part of the world. They sprayed the walls inside the homes and the stilts that supported the homes with DDT because it was discovered that the mosquito could fly only 15 feet after biting before it had to stop and digest the blood.
"The Peace Corps volunteer found this such a rich experience, in direct contact with a healing measure that in Thailand wasmade more successful. The rate of malaria in Thailand within two years had dropped dramatically," McCarthy said.
McCarthy said he went to Thailand for adventure and the challenge. He had read "The Ugly American," a 1958 bestseller by Eugene Burdick about a state official in Bangkok. It was a tale of American arrogance, incompetence and corruption in Southeast Asia.
"I felt that we could send them some Americans that weren't so ugly," he said. "I also thought it was a necessary learning process for Americans who were obviously going to establish leadership in the world." They said the experience taught Peace Corps volunteers to understand what it's like to live and work in another country, speak the language and be without luxury and just to be good guests.
"We had a marvelous relationship as long as we remembered we were guests and didn't try to change them to become good Americans," he said.
|By khunboonrawd (ip68-99-24-141.om.om.cox.net - 188.8.131.52) on Friday, February 27, 2004 - 2:47 pm: Edit Post|
John McCarthy was NOT the first P.C. Director in Thailand; Glenn W. Ferguson was. I was his Volunteer Staff Assistant. As it is clear that this article required extensive interviews of the McCarthys, it is hard to understand how this error survived and was published.