The PCV Who Wasn't There

Peace Corps 50th anniversary essay

During the first year of the Peace Corps Yale was well represented; one of the very first volunteers was Dick Reinhart, ’59, who went with a small group to Peru, and three other recent college grads, all assigned to Philippines I. These were Duncan Yaggy from the class of 1960, and Don Cecchi and John Stickler from the class of ’59. (No other university had three Volunteers.) The 150 Volunteers in that first wave were intentionally selected to provide a broad cross-section of American youth. They represented some 30 states and a variety of backgrounds, from an Oklahoma cowboy to an NYC debutante. Late in the summer of 1961 they all assembled at Penn State University for seven weeks of intensive Philippine Studies.

Fifty years later the Peace Corps Writers put out a call to Philippine I and II alumni for essays, their recollections of that historic inaugural experience. It was published in 2011 under the title Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines. It is available at Internet booksellers. More than 100 of those memoirs were included in the book, including this one.

The PCV Who Wasn’t There

By John C. Stickler

My parents were both physicians who dedicated their lives to caring for others. So I was raised in a household where serving one’s fellow man was a given; it was never preached, only taught by example. My latent pacifist, do-good tendencies had been brought to the fore by Yale’s chaplain, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. who urged all Yalies to work overseas in the developing world for a year or two after graduation, preferably for a non-profit organization. I determined to do just that.

Returning to Tucson, Arizona after graduating from Yale in 1959, the Selective Service System loomed over my consciousness.

Registering as a conscientious objector was a major step, even in peacetime. I was still undecided. The law in those days was very narrow: a draftee could be offered two years of civilian alternative service if a background investigation confirmed that he was sincere in his objection to military service. That sincerity had to be based on a record of church attendance and a belief in God. My resume in those categories was sorely deficient. I’d never attended any church. I called myself a Humanist.

One morning I dropped in on my local Draft Board to inquire about the CO application form. (You couldn’t just print it out off the Internet.) The woman behind the desk was Nurse Rached.

“I can give you one,” she said coldly, “but I’ll have to record in your file that you took one.”

Unh. Backpedal. “Maybe you could just show it to me,” I suggested hopefully. “I don’t have to take it.”

“I can do that,” she replied, studying me carefully, “but I’ll still have to make a note in your file.”

“Never mind,” I said hastily, making a bee-line for the door. Wham. Nailed by the Thought Police.

“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”

Sometime before his inauguration President-elect Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps and called on young Americans to serve their country. He was talking to me.

My plan took shape: I would register as a CO, join the Peace Corps, and request that my two years in the PC qualify as Alternative Service. I’d be establishing a legal precedent for generations of peacenik do-gooders following in my footsteps. Maybe even give the Peace Corps a boost in the process. I applied and sat for the federal examination. On July 14, 1961, I became the first Arizonan to be selected.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Peace Corps may have saved some money on my background check; the FBI was well along on its investigation of my sincerity as an objector. The only part of the investigation involving me was the FBI interview, held at the Federal Building in Tucson in the same room where I’d taken the Peace Corps entrance exam. I remember feeling a little sorry for the interrogator (not an apt term for him, he was trying to be kind) because of the questions he was required to ask:

“Do you believe in God?”

“How would you describe God?”

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

These are not easy questions under any circumstance. They are even tougher when your answers determine whether you are sent to A) the Peace Corps, B) the Army, or C) prison. I could commiserate with Joan of Arc: D) Burn at the stake.

If my folks had taken me to church, or even if I’d attended Reverend Coffin’s Sunday services in Battell Chapel (now I regret not), I might have been better prepared for this. I told him I was quite sure there was no God looking down on me, monitoring my ethical humanist behavior. I was on my own.

Penn State

The seven weeks of training at Penn State were exhilarating for me. It seemed we were all brothers and sisters with the same cause, like Moonies, except we were devotees of JFK, setting out to save the world for him.

Aside from those nasty inoculations every Friday, there were two obstacles I had to face during our training. The first was the psychiatrist; remember Dr. Gordon? “Flash” Gordon? We sat on the grass under a tree (first put the subject at ease) and chatted about my goals and feelings. I told her I had registered as a conscientious objector and that I hoped my two years in the Philippines would be accepted by the Selective Service as Alternative Service.

Psychiatry is an inexact science at best and anyone’s words can be taken in many ways. I knew that Dr. Gordon held all our futures in her hands, especially mine. Yes, the Peace Corps wanted idealists to volunteer, but how far along that I’m-a-do-gooder spectrum could one stand before being classified as too idealistic? i.e., weird. Would my CO application, now in the hands of the FBI, push me over that psychiatric boundary?

I thought my interview with Dr. Gordon went well. I was open and sincere – always risky.

My other obstacle, quite unexpected, was a steadily increasing itchiness in my groinal area, as Woody Allen might say. It got to the embarrassing point where I could not stop scratching, so I went to the university medical center to have it checked out. The doctor quickly diagnosed the problem: pubic lice.

Just fine. I imagined the final admissions panel back in Washington reviewing my record: “Not only is he way too idealistic, he’s got crabs! Do we really need this guy?”


Our graduation was a downer. First, we did not receive our diplomas in the Rose Garden from President Kennedy as advertised, something I’ve lamented all my life. (Seeing that old film of 4H Club member Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK in the Rose Garden made it even worse.) The Berlin Crisis interrupted our plans. Then Sargent Shriver cancelled his trip to Penn State to do the honors because he had to stay in DC and lobby for the initial PC budget bill when it came up in congress.

So we ended up with Ambassador Carlos P. Romulo who railed at us because the Filipino soldiers who had fought alongside US forces in WWII had not been paid yet. (What would he have said if he’d known that in 2010 they’d still be waiting for their checks?)

Second, was the word that some of our fellow Volunteers were being washed out even as graduation day approached. It was a gloomy ceremony.

But I had made it through! Crabs and Dr. Gordon notwithstanding. I treasured that diploma and headed back to Arizona with it and my ticket to San Francisco. The lull before the storm.

Enroute, I stopped in New Haven to see Reverend Coffin. The door of his office was ajar and I peeked in. He was sitting with three young men who appeared to be Jewish grad students and they were arguing that Christianity was a failure. “That’s because no one’s tried it yet!” he countered. I didn’t interrupt.

The Peace Corps had suggested that before assignment to some remote jungle island I should have all four wisdom teeth removed. Back in Tucson, after coming out of the general anesthetic, I was given some pain pills and my mother drove me home. Groggy and weak, I lay on the couch. The phone rang. It was a telegram from Washington. The operator read it to me. I had been deselected.

It wasn’t enough to have my dreams shattered, the arc of my entire life derailed, but insults had to follow the injury. I didn’t make TIME Magazine, as Charlie Kamen did, but the local media were all over me. I was page one news for several days. My poor parents were mortified.

Eternal Arizona Senator Carl Hayden called a press conference in Washington to announce my deselection and I’ve often wondered if my dismissal was traded for Carl’s vote for PC funding. I hadn’t planned to serve my country that way, but it may have been the case. I can’t blame the Peace Corps; they were under pressure from Arizona’s Goldwaterites. They had not voted for JFK, they were dismissive of his ideas, and particularly did not like me

My draft board was ecstatic and called the newspapers to let them know how delighted they were that I had been rejected by the Peace Corps. They boasted that they had assisted by refusing to allow my overseas travel and I was now 1-A, eligible for the draft. Heh, heh. (Sound of hands rubbing together.) The vice chairman of the board told the Arizona Daily Star, “I couldn’t name a human being in the world who is more unfit for the Peace Corps.”

Letters to the editor split down the middle. Some said, “We don’t want draft dodgers representing our country overseas!” Others said that it seemed I was just the sort of volunteer who belonged in the Peace Corps. The local chapter of the American Humanist Association wrote a nice letter in my support. The American Legion Hall was horrified that I had suggested letting Peace Corps service substitute for military duty, thus dishonoring all the blood spilled to date by our patriotic servicemen and women.

The local chapter of the ACLU broke up over my case. Half of the attorneys wrote to General Hershey accusing the head of the draft board (a very prominent state senator) of breaching his oath of office. He had been quoted in the press as saying that he did not recognize conscientious objection, an accepted draft classification, and they demanded his firing or at least a reprimand. The other half didn’t agree.

So the Peace Corps would not be my Alternative Service, nor anyone else’s. No precedent would be set. I now had three options: lie on the tracks until the Army conscription train arrived; take a moral stand and go to jail for two years; or enroll in graduate school.

I seriously considered incarceration, but received an invitation from my father’s cardiologist. “Your father has had two heart attacks already,” he told me. “Would you want to be the cause of his third, his final one?”

That left grad school. My hard-nosed draft board had never granted me a student deferment during four years of college because I wasn’t in the top half of my class.

“But I’m at Yale.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

The rules then were that if you reached your 26th birthday you were no longer draft eligible. Further, if you’d never received a student deferment they were obligated to give you one for graduate school. I was pleased to learn that the University of Arizona planned to introduce a new master’s program in Community Development in January of 1962. I applied and was accepted. I was 25.

Classes began and I had not heard from my draft board. I was home free!


The induction notice was postmarked the day before classes started and thus trumped my new student status. My last refuge. The Army conscription train was coming down the tracks.

U.S. Army Personnel File, 1962

“Private Stickler does not project proper military bearing.”