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First Group of Peace Corps Volunteers Marking 25th Anniversary

July 17, 1986 GMT

GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) _ In the 25-year history of the U.S. Peace Corps, no group of volunteers has approached Ghana I.

No group could. We were the first.

At the end of August 1961, reinforced with a handshake from President John F. Kennedy at a White House ceremony, our group’s 51 members flew 17 hours in a propeller-driven Pan American Clipper to the newly independent West African nation of Ghana. We became the first Peace Corps volunteers sent abroad.

We had undergone training for eight weeks at the University of California at Berkeley. The training consisted mostly of lectures on Africa, especially on Ghana. Three Ghanaian instructors taught us their country’s predominant language, Twi, but only one of us really mastered it. The one phrase the rest of us mastered was ″I do’t know how to speak Twi.″

Our journey to Ghana and what followed will be remembered starting Friday, when most of the members of Ghana I assemble in an 85-year-old Victorian beach house in this fishing port for a three-day 25th anniversary reunion weekend, where we will eat fufu, groundnut stew, kele wele and palm wine, all delicacies of Ghana.

In Washington, the Peace Corps bureaucracy has scheduled a five-day 25th anniversary reunion and conference for all 1961 volunteers in September. It climaxes Sept. 22 with President Reagan presiding over a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

We were the first in a stream of 120,000 volunteers who in a quarter- century worked in 94 countries, and we didn’t know what to expect.

Critics spoke of ″Kennedy’s Kiddie Corps″ on a ″Crewcut Crusade.″ Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of a ″juvenile experiment.″

These days the Peace Corps is as much a part of the federal establishment as the U.S. Postal Service, and almost as conspicuous. A total of 5,800 volunteers are working in 64 countries, a force reduced by budget cuts from nearly 17,000 deployed in the mid-’60s.

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s firebrand prime minister, spent that summer careening around Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union promoting African socialism, unsure whether he wanted U.S. volunteers.

When Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps founding director, initially offered Ghana volunteers in April 1961, Nkrumah asked for plumbers.

When offered secondary school teachers, he said he wanted only graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. He had to be satisfied with what the Peace Corps sent him, and there wasn’t a plumber among us.

What Nkrumah probably didn’t know was that of the 51 volunteers, only 16 had actually had full-time professional teaching experience. The rest of us were willing amateurs, the kind of people who have become the Peace Corps staple. Throughout its history, the Peace Corps has sought specialists but has never recruited them in any appreciable numbers.

After two years in Africa, most Ghana I volunteers returned to the lives they had interrupted.

″If you write a story, you’ll scare people away,″ said Ophelia Gona, now a biochemist in Upper Montclair, N.J., and one of the reunion’s most enthusiastic organizers. The Ghana I volunteers, she remembered, always were touchy about their privacy.

None of us became household names as did former volunteers Paul Tsongas, a former senator from Massachusetts, or Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. John Demos, who teaches history at Brandeis University, won the 1982 George Bancroft Award for a book about New England witches. One book about the Peace Corps came out of the group, but no one remembers reading it.

While many returned to teaching in the United States, others continued to work abroad. Barnett Chessin’s last address, for example, was with U.S. Agency for International Development in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Dorothy (DeeDee) Vellenga often visited Ghana to research women’s lives as a professor at Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio. She was the first among us to die, of cancer, at 47 on Oct. 3, 1984.

George Coyne, now 54, of Plainfield, N.J., returned from two years in Ghana to teach science in a Clark, N.J., classroom down the hall from the one he occupied before he went to Ghana. He is still in Clark.

For those wondering what they would do if they had it to do all over again, there is Bob Klein, now 57, of Montclair, N.J. In 1973, he volunteered for a second time, taking his wife, Carol, and their children, Sarah, then 3, and Benjamin, 2, for two more years in Ghana.

Not all Ghana I members come from New Jersey. Newell Flather, who has provided his family beach house for the reunion, in 1961 left for Ghana from the Harvard campus. John Krisko will come from Thermopolis, Wyo., where he has taught school. Dick and Ann Port, the first married couple the Peace Corps sent abroad, are coming from Honolulu.

Tom Livingston, 47, now an antiques dealer in Berkeley, Calif., will lead a contingent of half a dozen West Coast residents. Originally from Woodale, Ill., he won trivia immortality on Sept. 12, 1961, when he reported for duty at a school in Dodowa, Ghana, and became the first volunteer on the job.

″These are not ordinary lives,″ said Marion Morrison, now a San Francisco banker who still lives in the house where she was born. ″We’re so much more interesting a group than we were 25 years ago.″

No matter how we’ve lived, we’re a pretty special crowd.

After all, we were the first.