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Rhoda Brooks


Article by: Jeff  Strickler, Star Tribune – September 16, 2011

Editor: This article was published after Rhoda Brooks was honored at the 2011 Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration in Washington DC for her early service to Peace Corps and for being the co-author of the first book written by Peace Corps Volunteers.

On a fall morning in 1961, Earle Brooks called his wife’s attention to a newspaper article announcing formation of the Peace Corps. Excited about the idea of volunteering, Rhoda Brooks immediately sat down and wrote to President John Kennedy, offering their services. The president wasn’t personally handling paperwork for prospective volunteers. But once they had been directed to the proper channels, it wasn’t long before Rhoda, then 26, and Earle, 28, were on their way to the small fishing village of Manta, Ecuador.

“Right from the beginning, we believed in the spirit of the Peace Corps,” she said in her Excelsior home, where photos of their travels line the walls. “We weren’t idealists. We knew that there were going to be hardships. But we didn’t look upon it as a sacrifice; we saw it as an opportunity.” She laughed before adding: “Well, maybe we were idealists.”

When Brooks, 76, heard about [the September 2011] celebration in Washington, D.C., commemorating the first 50 years of the Peace Corps, she knew that she had to be there. She has watched it grow from a romantic vision that naysayers derided as “Kennedy’s Kiddie Korps” to one of the world’s most influen­tial aid operations. More than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries under an organizational plan so successful that it’s been copied by agencies such as AmeriCorps and the Veterans Service Corps.

Beyond being among the first volunteers, she and her late husband were intertwined with the Peace Corps on other levels. When National Geographic magazine devoted an entire issue to the organization in 1964, the cover photo was of Rhoda Brooks exchanging a hug with an Ecuadorean woman. When the couple finished their tour of duty, they wrote a book about their experiences that was the first of its kind. By the time they left Ecuador, they had adopted two children, the older of whom, Rico, joined the Peace Corps in 1981, becoming the agency’s first second-generation volunteer. The novelty of the young cou­ple’s start in the early days of the Peace Corps also earned them a greeting from then-U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, one of the authors of the bill that created the corps. Among Rhoda’s treasured possessions is a photo of Humphrey with the family.

But they weren’t done; in 1980, Rhoda and Earle quit their jobs – he was a vice president at Pillsbury who oversaw the Pillsbury Foundation, and she was a special-education teacher in Minnetonka – and volunteered for a second tour of duty, this time in Chile. That assignment is memorialized in a photo­graph of the Brooks’ with President Jimmy Carter, who personally named them co-directors of the entire Chilean aid operation. “He got two for the price of one,” Rhoda Brooks said. “He was the first president who ever did that, named a husband-and-wife couple as co-directors, and it was pretty smart, because when one of us was out in the field, the other one could be in the office.” Brooks still organizes a reunion of Peace Corps veterans from Minnesota and western Wisconsin every year.

“It gave me a zest for life that I don’t think I would have realized had I just stayed in Minnesota,” she said of her experiences, which included everything from laying bricks to teaching swimming lessons. “The impact on our lives was not something we anticipated when we joined. “

The daughter of a Methodist minister, Brooks originally planned to be a missionary, but that “didn’t feel like the right fit” after she got married. Earle had a job in Illinois, which is where they were when he read the newspaper article that changed their lives. Early in 1962, they went to Puerto Rico for four months of “extremely rigorous training,” aimed not only at preparing them for the challenges ahead but also designed to scare away volunteers with less resolve.“People were washing out left and right,” she said. “They couldn’t handle the cultural changes or the language challenges, or they were there for the wrong reason.”

The Brooks’ had been warned to expect a major culture shock when they arrived in Manta, but in some ways, it was almost surreal. It didn’t have water or a sewer system, but there was a Chevrolet dealership. “The houses were built on stilts,” Brooks said as she pointed to a photograph in a scrapbook. “It wasn’t because of flooding. It was to keep the thieves out.” They came to love the place, or at least the people who lived there. That influenced their decision to adopt; Rico was 4 and Carmen 2 by the time they returned to the United States. “By then I was also pregnant,” Brooks said. “I called it my instant brood.” 

Rhoda Brooks held a photo of herself and her late husband, Earle, as she stood in her Excelsior home’s hallway filled with photos and memories of their years together in the Peace Corps.