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updated: 3/3/2011 11:00 AM

Suburban Peace Corp volunteers reunite at Harper

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  • Rich Johnson, with one of his host family's kids in Western Africa.

      Rich Johnson, with one of his host family's kids in Western Africa.
    Courtesy Rich Johnson

  • Rich Johnson, sometime between 1984 and 1986, in the West African courtyard where he stayed. "I lived with a family that had two wives and five kids between them," he related.

      Rich Johnson, sometime between 1984 and 1986, in the West African courtyard where he stayed. "I lived with a family that had two wives and five kids between them," he related.
    Courtesy Rich Johnson

  • Vern Risty, left, uses a big knife to cut a wooden pole as he helps a Bolivian farmer build a chicken coop.

      Vern Risty, left, uses a big knife to cut a wooden pole as he helps a Bolivian farmer build a chicken coop.
    Courtesy Vern Risty

  • Vern Risty, right, and a Bolivian farmer survey the progress of the farmer's chicken flock.

      Vern Risty, right, and a Bolivian farmer survey the progress of the farmer's chicken flock.
    Courtesy Vern Risty

  • Kristie Smith with a student at a teaching seminar in Chengdu.

      Kristie Smith with a student at a teaching seminar in Chengdu.
    Courtesy Kristie Smith

  • Kristie Smith of Palatine, with the Peace Corps in China.

      Kristie Smith of Palatine, with the Peace Corps in China.
    Courtesy Kristie Smith

  • Former Peace Corps volunteer Richard Johnson with his students at Harper College in Palatine.

       Former Peace Corps volunteer Richard Johnson with his students at Harper College in Palatine.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Rob Alexander, right, with a local community leader in Colombia.

      Rob Alexander, right, with a local community leader in Colombia.
    Courtesy Rob Alexander

 
By Jean Murphy

The world seems like a very small place. But in the 1960s, when Vern Risty took a Peace Corps assignment to Bolivia and Rob Alexander went to Colombia, their travels were considered exotic.

Twenty years later, when Rich Johnson was teaching English in West Africa, he lived in a cinder block structure with a tin roof and no electricity or running water.

Even modern China was unique for Kristie Smith of Palatine, when she taught English to Chinese college students. An American of Jamaican descent, Smith was the first black person anyone in her Chinese town had seen. They thought she was from Africa.

Peace Corps volunteers from around the suburbs will reunite and swap stories Thursday night at the Wojcik Conference Center at Harper College, 1200 W. Algonquin Road.

The 6 p.m. event is open to the public, and former Peace Corps volunteers are encouraged to wear the attire of their host country, said Johnson, coordinator of International Studies and Programs at Harper.

Every year for nearly a decade, Johnson has marked the March 1 anniversary of the Peace Corps, with talks to civic groups, panel discussions and recruiting meetings at local libraries.

"As this is the 50th anniversary (March 1, 1961), there are events all across the country with an especially large gathering in Washington D.C.," he said. "So I figured it was time to hold a gathering of our own ... for anyone with any ties to the Peace Corps.

"Folks who served as volunteers, whose family members served or who have sons, brothers, sister, friends serving right now and anyone who's just plain interested in the Peace Corps -- all are invited."

A 45-minute reception will be followed by John Deever, a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 1993-1995 and the author of "Singing on the Heavy Side of the World."

R. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps who died in January, will also be remembered.

Johnson is not the only former Peace Corps volunteer at Harper College. There are 10, including Smith, Risty and Alexander. The others are: Mark Healy, Kenya, 1979-81; Molly Waite, Botswana, 2008-10; Jerilyn Gadberry, Brazil, 1964-66; Regina Rector, Zimbabwe, 1994-96; Charles Norris, Peru, 1964-66; and Sarah Mikulski, Poland, 1999-2001.

Risty, of Arlington Heights, has worked in Harper's public safety department since retiring from the electronics industry. He went to Bolivia in 1962 after two years at South Dakota State College of Agriculture, to help about 40 small poultry farmers form a chicken cooperative.

He taught them to vaccinate their birds and feed them balanced diets. He helped the farmers build chicken coops, and increased egg production threefold during his tenure.

Risty said the farmers were eager to learn from him, even in ways he hadn't expected.

"The biggest challenge was teaching them to reinvest their profits in their farms instead of going off and buying a radio or a bicycle with the extra money," Risty said. "So I found myself counseling them on managing their money, too."

His two years in Bolivia made him more aware of other cultures, and the hardships they endure, Risty said.

About the time Risty returned home, Rob Alexander was heading to Colombia.

"I heard the call from President Kennedy to serve those less fortunate," he said. After getting a philosophy degree at Indiana University, he explored the Peace Corps.

"I asked to go to India, because it was the most exotic place I could think of," Alexander said.

"But they sent me to Colombia instead because I had some experience with Spanish."

In those days Colombia was known for orchids, coffee and gold. The drugs came later. And there was no anti-American feeling at all, he said.

Alexander's job was to show the mountain people how to identify community needs, and organize themselves into action groups.

"These were just humble folks who wanted to improve their own community, so they elected a little council and raised funds and organized work days," he said.

"My job was to help them recruit manpower and buy materials. I put them in touch with state officials who provided the necessary big machinery and men to run it for the construction of a school, two roads and one bridge."

Alexander said those were the best two years of his life as an individual.

"It showed me what I was capable of doing," Alexander enthused. "In fact, it was a life-changing experience. I came back to Chicago and became the first bilingual teacher in the Chicago Public Schools."

Eventually he became a principal and administrator. He has taught at Harper since 1977. Now semiretired, the Arlington Heights resident indulges his missionary spirit through frequent trips to Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The son of an American diplomat, Rich Johnson grew up as a citizen of the world, living in Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Brazil. He graduated from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, but instead of following his father, he applied to the Peace Corps.

Fluent in French and Portuguese, Johnson was assigned to teach English to high school students in French-speaking Upper Volta, a country the size of Colorado that changed its name to Burkina Faso while he was in country. He taught in a provincial high school from 1984 to 1986.

"The people of Burkina Faso were marvelous, resilient, creative and entrepreneurial people," Johnson said. "They were not whiners looking for a handout, even though they lived in the fifth poorest country in the world at the time.

Peace Corps volunteers were embraced, he said, because, "We lived among them with no more advantages than they had."

The West Africa experience had a lasting effect on Johnson, confirming for him he wanted to be a teacher. He also was fascinated by local storytelling and collected samples while he was there.

Later, as a master's candidate at New York University, he wrote a thesis comparing those African stories to medieval storytelling in Anglo-Saxon England. He eventually earned a doctorate in medieval English literature from Northwestern University, "but the genesis was those oral stories in Africa," Johnson said.

Johnson has been a professor of English at Harper College since 1997 and lives in Maple Park, near DeKalb.

He sees the Peace Corps as a means to show the U.S. to the world as something other than a military super power.

"The Peace Corps is sending energetic young Americans, the best and brightest of our country, around the world to help others," Johnson stated.

Kristie Smith of Palatine fits that description.

Six weeks after graduating from Florida State University with a major in Asian studies, she was part of only the sixth group of Peace Corps volunteers to enter China.

Smith was assigned to teach English at a teachers college in Sichuan Province in the southwest.

Since she is black and the other two Peace Corps volunteers were a Chinese-American girl and a red-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian man, they used themselves to teach their students about the diversity of America.

"China is an amazing country. I already knew it from an academic perspective, but until you get there you can't imagine how busy, crowded and dynamic a country of 1.3 billion people is," Smith, Harper College's grant writer since 2009, explained.

"I know of no other way to gain a first-person perspective on a country and an awareness and appreciation of a culture besides living there," she said.

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