A Local Leader Reflects on His Peace Corps Years

A Local Leader Reflects on His Peace Corps Years
By Carla Kowalski and Charlotte Still Noble

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country." These oft quoted words from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address summarize a key theme from the young senator's presidential campaign. Within a few months of taking the oath of office, President Kennedy worked with the Congress to establish a large corps of American volunteers to provide assistance throughout the world. The Peace Corps Act of 1961 established this new initiative and set forth three primary goals: promote world peace and friendship; help countries meet their needs for manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas; and promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

This month commemorates the 45th anniversary of the Peace Corps' founding. The Peace Corps' presence around the world, especially in developing countries, has brought education, medical care, agricultural advancement, and human understanding to millions of people in dozens of countries. Since its inception, the Peace Corps has sent over 182,000 volunteers and trainees to serve in 138 countries.

The Peace Corps also has had a tremendous impact on those who have served in its ranks. Many well-known Ohioans have served in the Peace Corps, including former governor Richard Celeste (9th Director) and current Governor Robert Taft (Tanzania 1963-1965). Another such person is Lakewood resident Kevin O'Donnell. O'Donnell served as Peace Corps Country Director in Korea from 1966-1970 before going on to be the fourth Director of the Peace Corps in the early 1970s. O'Donnell agreed to be interviewed for this article.

O'Donnell grew up on the west side of Cleveland and the eastern part of Lakewood, and was educated at St. Rose's Grammar School and West High School before receiving degrees from Kenyon College and Harvard Business School. After serving in World War II, O'Donnell married and quickly became established in his business career. When the Peace Corps was founded in 1961, O'Donnell was happily settled into suburban life with his wife and their children. Five years later, however, O'Donnell and his family-- by then ten in all--were living in Korea, serving in the Peace Corps. To what can such a marked change be attributed?

O'Donnell describes three pivotal factors, that when taken together, changed the direction of his life. First, O'Donnell and his wife, Peg, became active in a spiritual renewal movement in the Catholic Church, the Cursillo, which got O'Donnell thinking about life from a mission-oriented perspective. Second, O'Donnell became acquainted with 12-step recovery programs, which further underscored the importance and rewards of serving others. Finally, tragically, Peg O'Donnell died shortly after giving birth to the O'Donnells' sixth child. Then a widower with six children, O'Donnell knew the life he had been living was past, the future as yet undetermined.

O'Donnell later married Ellen Blydenberg, the widow of a college classmate. Their combined family included eight children, ages 1-16. Ellen was familiar with service-oriented living as her father had been a medical missionary in China. She was supportive of Kevin's desire to dedicate the next phase of life to mission rather than profit alone.

In 1966, all ten O'Donnells moved to Korea when Kevin was appointed the first Country Director for the Peace Corps in Korea. His responsibilities were to shape the Peace Corps' initial presence in that country. All Peace Corps volunteers were encouraged to further their involvement with Korea and its people through their personal as well as their Peace Corps interests. In this vein, O'Donnell pursued his own personal involvement and was instrumental in bringing the Cursillo to Korea. O'Donnell's professional and personal leadership of Peace Corps/Korea was recognized by President Park Chong Hee, who awarded O'Donnell the Order of Civil Merit. Following four years of service in Korea, the O'Donnells returned to the United States where, after some months, Kevin was appointed the fourth Director of the Peace Corps.

Although serving the Peace Corps in Korea and then in Washington, DC were radically different experiences, each was profoundly challenging. By the early 1970s when O'Donnell was Peace Corps Director, moves were afoot in Congress to cast a potentially fatal blow to the Peace Corps' funding. One congressman from Louisiana, Otto Passman, unrelentingly attacked the entire concept of a Peace Corps and rallied as much support as possible for its demise.

During the interview in his Lakewood office, O'Donnell pulled out documents from the detailed case he made to Congress to save the Peace Corps. His charisma, passion and commitment are very much in evidence as he reflects on that time. "It was a pivotal time. Had Congressman Passman's efforts succeeded, the Peace Corps would have had to recall thousands of volunteers, breaking contracts and commitments with communities and countries around the world."

A piece of history rarely noted is that the Nixon administration was responsible for saving the Peace Corps at this crucial juncture. "Had the Nixon White House not intervened, transferring funds from other overseas programs to the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps could not have continued without serious repercussions. The effects would have been devastating. Thankfully, our case prevailed," O'Donnell says with a satisfied smile.

O'Donnell returned to Cleveland and re-entered the business world. He retired as CEO of SIFCO Industries after having led the company in its global expansion. O'Donnell continues to credit his Peace Corps service as among the most meaningful and challenging days of his life, a time that enriched all subsequent endeavors. "Peace Corps service is not for everyone - but those who do serve are changed forever for the better." He is rightfully proud that his daughter Megan O'Donnell Patton (84-86, Nepal), and his granddaughter, Allison O'Donnell (to be assigned upon graduation from Oberlin, spring, 2006), are among the younger generations who have joined the ranks of Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps continues to welcome adult applicants of all ages and backgrounds. Service as a PC Volunteer still offers the opportunity for individuals to satisfy some of their idealism, learn about a foreign culture and return home and share these experiences with their fellow Americans. Today over one-third of all volunteers work in education, another third in business development and environmental work, and a fifth in health and HIV/AIDS-related work. With programs in over 60 countries, a Volunteer has a wide selection of languages and cultures from which to choose.

Additional information about the Peace Corps and its 45th anniversary can be found on its website, www.peacecorps.gov.

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Volume 2, Issue 7, Posted 7:07 PM, 03.19.06