The Defining Generation
Defining Human Rights
Christopher Dodd & Christopher Shays
NOTE: When this chapter was written in 2006, with the kind assistance of the staffs of both Senator Dodd and Congressman Shays, both men were serving in Congress. In the 2008 election Christopher Shays lost his re-election effort. Two years later Senator Dodd opted not to run again for his own Senate seat.
Christopher J. Dodd and Christopher H. Shays sit on opposite sides of the aisle and in separate houses on Capitol Hill. Dodd, a Democrat and candidate for his party's 2008 Presidential nomination, is considered a left-of-center liberal who has served as a U.S. Senator since 1981. Shays, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is the only Republican from the New England states to survive a sweeping shift from right to left in the 2006 election. One of the more non-partisan members of Congress, many in his party have derided him with the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) for his tendency to side on some issues with the opposition. Political affiliation aside, the two men have much in common besides their shared first name.
While researching for this book we found particularly interesting and refreshing, the response of Congressman Shays' office when we called for an interview. "You know," responded John Cardarelli in Congressman Shays' Press Office, "Senator Dodd ALSO served in the Peace Corps." Seemingly innocuous on the surface, upon reflection we came to realize that Peace Corps service provides those who have accepted that challenge a sense of fraternity that transcends partisan politics or political affiliation. Indeed, proportionally, the number of members of the 110th U.S. Congress who have served in the Peace Corps vastly eclipses the ratio of legislators who have served in the military.
Born May 27, 1944, in Willimantic, Connecticut, Christopher Dodd was raised in a large family, the fifth of six children. It was a family dedicated to public service and concerned with both home-grown and global injustice. His father, Thomas Dodd, served as a Special Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) in 1933-34 and then as assistant to five successive Attorney Generals. Many of his cases involved investigating and prosecuting civil liberties violations and criminal activities of the Klu Klux Klan. Following World War II he served as one of the lead prosecutors during the Nuremberg war crimes tribunals, and was recognized for his exemplary work with award of the Medal of Freedom in 1946.
In 1952 Thomas Dodd was elected to the first of two terms as a Congressman from Connecticut, and in 1958 was elected to represent his state in the United States Senate. When President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, by virtue of his father's position in Congress 17-year-old Christopher Dodd was privileged to be among the crowd that stood on the Capitol steps to witness that historic moment. He was personally moved by the President's challenging words to a new generation, "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."
After obtaining a Bachelors Degree in English Literature from Providence College in 1966, Chris Dodd acted upon President Kennedy's challenge by joining the Peace Corps. "By the summer of 1966, I was carrying a 30-pound backpack for five miles through the mountains of the Dominican Republic, and as the sweat ran down my face, my socks dissolved inside my boots, and several dozen large insects ate me alive, I remember thinking, very distinctly--'This'll make a great introduction for my speech to the National Peace Corps Association'," he recalled in 2006.[i]
Remembering those days of
foreign service when the 22-year-old son of a United States Senator left
the security of a comfortable home in
"The first (most nerve-wracking moment) came in 1966, on the road to Monción, a village in the rural hills," he says. "I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, and I couldn’t believe what I’d just gotten myself into. I was 22 years old, barely spoke a word of Spanish, and had no idea what I was doing. I’d been proud of my idealism; but at that moment, it felt like pure naiveté. It felt like my family was on the other side of the world. I focused on the road and thought about two years with no one to talk to and no place to call home.
"I’d never worked so hard in my life as I did the first summer in Monción. And the more I got my hands dirty, the less I worried. With the local workers, I helped finish building a library, a youth club and a maternity clinic–projects I’d never imagined undertaking. We would take breaks in the heat of the day, sitting together in the shade and speaking mostly in gestures and stray syllables. But every day I picked up five or 10 new words of Spanish. The first thing I learned to ask for was a drink of water!
"When I could finally make my way through a conversation, I tried to answer the one question that came from almost everybody: “¿Por que viniste?” Why did you come here? What made you leave your home and your country and live with us for two years?
"I had a simple answer for them: Someone asked me to….
"I recalled standing on the East Front of the Capitol on a freezing January day in 1961, listening to President Kennedy’s famous inaugural address. I understood that when he talked about a torch being passed, he was talking to me, to my entire generation. President Kennedy asked us to stand up and lead–and that’s what I was trying to do. All of that probably didn’t come across as clearly in my halting Spanish. But I think my friends caught the drift of it."[ii]
Dodd's two years in the Dominican Republic left an indelible impression on his life. He came away from the experience with a new realization as to how fortunate he was to live in a prosperous country like the United States. In a sense he left his heart in Central America where he had witnessed how difficult life could be in other parts of the world. The experience left him with two key ideals that would later mark much of his work as a public servant. Dodd truly came to believe that those with privilege had an inherent obligation to reach out to others as he had helped the people of the Dominican Republic. Further, he came to a firm belief that in helping others he had enhanced his own life, and that an important factor in developing good citizens at home was a call to EVERY young American to public service.
Chris Dodd's pride in the
important work of the Peace Corps has made him not only one of its
greatest proponents, but also one of its most astute historians. He likes
to point out, for instance, that months before President Kennedy set forth
his vision in his inaugural speech, he had alliterated the message in an
impromptu speech at the
While on the campaign trail
in October 1960, President Kennedy arrived late at night at the
"I don't know exactly why the idea came to Kennedy on the steps of the Michigan Union;" says Dodd, "but if any of us should ever be lucky enough to have 10,000 young men and women waiting for hours to see us outdoors in the cold, I'd hope we could come up with something as meaningful. President Kennedy didn't have an organization for this idea, he didn't have funding--he didn't even have a name for it! But this is exactly where we trace our (Peace Corps) origin, before bureaucracy, before executive orders, all the way back to the spontaneous and nameless need."[iii]
John Kennedy reiterated his challenge to a young America again, this time as planned, in San Francisco. Noting the humble beginnings of the organization, Dodd likes to point out with a laugh that this came at a venue called the "Cow Palace." The noble concept quickly embraced by the young however, was not so eagerly welcomed by the older. Vice President Richard Nixon, running against Kennedy in the Presidential election called the Peace Corps a "haven for draft-dodgers." Even President Eisenhower scoffed, calling it "a juvenile experiment." Kennedy won the election, set forth his vision at inauguration, and the Peace Corps was born.
During that period when the Defining Generation came of age the United States was involved in two wars. In Vietnam there was the war of bullets, during which one of Chris' friends, a Marine, lost his life at Khe Sanh in the defense of freedom. The other was a war of ideology…the Cold War around the globe, in which Chris shared his life to spread freedom.
President Kennedy had spoken to that new kind of warfare, and ideological struggle against Communism in a battle for hearts and minds in the world in his "Cow Palace" speech, noting:
Christopher Dodd notes, "In sending muscle and know-how to the Third World, in fighting to lift up the destitute, in a thousand painful acts, the Peace Corps was also doing America's work. Our reputation thrives when the world sees our ideals not just in ink, but incarnate in the young man or woman with dirty hands who is working in the sun beside you."[i]
Following his Peace Corps service and upon returning home, Christopher Dodd voluntarily offered himself to that other conflict. Through he never served in Vietnam, Dodd enlisted in the National Guard in 1969 and later served in the U.S. Army Reserves. He was honorably discharged in 1975.
Decades later in the aftermath of the horrible attack on America on September 11, 2001, Senator Dodd said, "In all the controversies of the last five years, all the vagaries of strategy and tactics and plan and counter plan, there's one policy that guarantees success: sending our best young men and women into the world to make America known.
"You can only hate America if you don't know America."[ii]
At the time of that statement Christopher Dodd was the United States Senator from Connecticut. First elected in 1981, he is the only person from that state to follow his father into the Senate, the youngest Connecticut man ever elected to the Senate, and the only Connecticut Senator popularly elected to five consecutive terms. He has used his role to promote not only Peace Corps friendly legislation, but to challenge all Americans to service.
When he launched his bid for the 2008 Presidential election he introduced an "American Community Initiative" that would make public service mandatory for all Americans. "People want to be asked (to help)," he explained his new Kennedy-esque idea. "They love to be asked. If you ask people to do things, to become a part of something like this, you'd be amazed at the response. People in a time of crisis do it almost voluntarily. But if you can begin early enough in schools, with the leaned experience of doing this, it becomes contagious in a way."
In fact, the second most-nerve-wracking moment in the life of Christopher Dodd was what cemented the great value of service, not only for those served, but for those who volunteer.
"Twenty years after I arrived in Monción as a volunteer," he says, "I went back as a U.S. Senator. I was truly scared--not as a young man in a new country, but as an older man in a familiar one. Would I be a stranger again? Would anyone remember me?
"I was overjoyed when they did. My old friends still knew me by name--and I had reason to think that I'd made as deep a mark on their lives as they'd made on mine. We sat and talked about the years that had brought us back together, in sight of the library we'd built with our own hands."[iii]
"In the years since, as a Senator and a returned volunteer, I've come to understand that nothing has shaped my life as powerfully as that Peace Corps experience. It taught me that working side-by-side toward a common goal has an enormous power to bridge differences of background, culture, and language."[iv]
Even as Christopher Dodd
was departing for two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the
While still in grade
school Chris became enamored reading about great American public
servants: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln.
Their examples so inspired him that early in his life he determined he
wanted to spend his own life in public service. By the time he was a
A member of the Church of Christ, Scientist, following graduation he enrolled in Principia, a private Christian Scientist school in Elsah, Illinois. The year was 1964 and the war in Vietnam had not yet become an American issue. Shays registered as a Conscientious Objector and began his educational pursuit to prepare for a life time of individual service.
After graduating with his Bachelor's Degree in 1968, Shays returned home to Connecticut with his high school sweetheart Betsi DeRaismes who had also graduated with him at Principia. Betsi wanted to become a teacher and would, in fact do just that, spending 27 years in Connecticut classrooms ranging from 1st through 10th grade to teach social studies and liberal arts. The two were married that summer but, before setting out to fulfill their career goals, they answered another call to service that would ultimately empower and inspire those later efforts.
It would probably be
accurate to say that Chris and Betsi honeymooned in Tahiti. Certainly
that sounds glamorous on the face of it. The fact is, shortly after
Chris and Besti said "I do" they jumped into their little
black Volkswagon and drove to Washington, D.C. to say "I
will." Arriving in the Nation's Capitol they filled out
applications to become volunteers in the 7-year-old Peace Corps.
"Everything about the Peace Corps seemed wonderful to us,"
Betsi said in a 2001 speech at her
While the idea of young newly-weds spending two years in Tahiti sounds at once both privileged and exotic, Chris and Betsi didn't go there for romance…they went there to work. Tahiti is part of French Polynesia, a scattering of small islands in the South Pacific that are primarily heavily jungled rain forests. The larger island of Tahiti itself is a popular tourist destination with developed urban areas, but Chris and Betsi were sent to bring American assistance to the more out-of-the-way places. They had two assignments, one on a remote island and the other in a small town where they worked in the poorest performing school in the country.
"You get these debates as Peace Corps volunteers, what are you doing here," Chris says. "You are teaching in their schools, you are healing their wounds, you are helping them build their roads, you are helping farmers know what to farm, you are helping fishermen fish better…I felt fairly convinced what we were doing as teachers in particular was to…help young people grow and learn, but you are also trying to identify the jewels that could get ignored in an education system that doesn't know how to pick out the jewels, the future leaders of countries.
"I became fairly convinced that as the population of these countries grow they just gravitate to their urban areas. They can't live their old ways. We are not westernizing them, we are urbanizing them. We are helping someone learn a trade, if you are a teacher, so that they can be a bookkeeper or someone who can contribute in an urban life and be able to support themselves and their families."[ii]
While Chris and Betsi's work was largely with children and the underprivileged adults in remote areas of Fiji, they further voluntarily engaged in a project their American experience gave them unique insights to handle. The wives of Fiji's King and Prime Minister headed a cooperative of some 10,000 local women who worked to improve their families by making and selling handicrafts to visiting tourists. Thanks to the insight and efforts of the Shays, these women were able to modify their program to the point that the price of their handmade items quadrupled. It would have made an American entrepreneur proud but Chris Shay's noted, "they felt a little guilty at first so I said, 'If you were middlemen, I'd feel guilty, but this (profit) all goes back to the women in the network.' We were just bringing basic marketing skill that every American knows."
The Shays returned home to Connecticut in 1970 inspired by their experience to face an uncertain future. "When it was time to come home, I think we expected everything to fall into place easily; jobs, a place to live, a family," she says. "Instead the story looked more like this: a recession, no jobs, no income, no place to live, and some unexpected heartache. Not exactly the story we were expecting." No doubt it was those years living among the poor of Fiji that gave them both hope and inspiration. While Betsi began her teaching career, Chris entered politics.
In 1975 Chris was elected to the State Legislature. As he had fought to reform life during his Peace Corps service, he now fought to reform injustice at home. While speaking out against judicial corruption he became something of a local hero when he refused to sit down in an anti-corruption trial and was sentenced to jail for contempt of court. His notoriety from that personal stand propelled him into the United States House of Representatives to serve Connecticut's 4th Congressional District in 1987. He has been reelected to that seat ten times.
"I don't say this with any reluctance," he once told a Congressional hearing. "Most of the growing I have done in my life I attribute to the 2 years that I was in the Peace Corps, an amazing time in which I did a great deal of growing as a human being. I think I am a better person today because of my experience. I think I am a better public servant today because of the experience that I had in the Peace Corps.
After teaching for 27 years, in 1998 Betsi joined her husband in Washington, D.C. where she returned to the Peace Corps as director of the Coverdell World Wise School Program and then later as director of the Corps' Domestic Programs. In her 2001 address at Principia she shared the story of a similar Peace Corps couple she had known. It illustrates well that while serving others, we often become the beneficiaries of new insights. She said:
"A husband-wife team from Chicago had been given a very remote assignment in a very traditional mountain village of Papua, New Guinea. These seemingly simple villagers had built the couple a bamboo house on stilts, planted a huge garden, and strewn flower petals on the path, welcoming them to their new home.
"One evening, during a story-telling session, the couple pulled out some photographs they had brought from home. One of them was of two obviously homeless men in front of a sleek office building in Chicago. In the words of the Peace Corps volunteer: "Crowding around the photograph for a good stare, the villagers could not comprehend how the men became homeless, or why the passersby in the photo were so indifferent. They bombarded me with questions, and I did my best to make sense of the two ragged beggars in the midst of such glittering skyscrapers.
"I read from their questions and solemn mood that they had made an important observation — these two men must not lack only food and shelter, but also a general sense of affection and purpose in their community.
"Early the next morning, we were startled to hear a sharp rap at the door. 'After you left last night, all of us men on the village council had a very big meeting. For a long, long time we discussed the two men in your picture. We have reached a conclusion and have a proposal for you. Please contact those two men as well as your government. Ask the government if they will fly those two men to My-ma-fu, just like they did for you. We have marked two spots of land where we will build houses for those two men, just like we built for you. Our men will build the houses, and the women will plant the gardens to feed them.'"[iii]
[ii] Shays, Christopher, Testimony before the Committee on International Relations, March 18, 1998.
[iii] Shays, Besti, ibid
[iv] Dodd, Senator Christopher J., "The Heart of Peace Corps is in the villages, not in Washington"
 Since establishment of the Peace Corps, 187,000 young men and women have volunteered and been trained for service, 6 of whom currently serve in the 110th U.S. Congress. Comparably, while nearly 150 members of the 110th Congress are veterans of military service (25 times the number of legislators with Peace Corps duty), during that same period more than 15 million men and women (80 times the number of Peace Corps volunteers) have been drafted or enlisted for service in the U.S. Military.
[i] Dodd, Senator Christopher J., National Peace Corps Association's Capitol Hill Lunch, September 14, 2006
[ii] Dodd, Senator Christopher J., "The Heart of Peace Corps is in the villages, not in Washington"
[iii] Dodd, Senator Christopher J., National Peace Corps Association's Capitol Hill Lunch, September 14, 2006
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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