By Christina Fitzpatrick, Processing Archivist
Staff at the Kennedy Library were greatly saddened to learn of the recent death of one of our community partners, Patricia (Pat) Wand. Pat had a long and distinguished career as a librarian and shared her expertise with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Archives Project (RPCV OHAP), a collaboration between the Kennedy Library and a group of RPCVs affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association. Interviews conducted by the OHAP from 2001 to 2020 were donated to the Library for long-term preservation and public access. In addition to her leadership work on the OHAP board, Pat personally conducted 26 interviews of other volunteers between 2012 and 2019. Her enthusiasm for all things Peace Corps and for creating connections within the RPCV community made her an especially effective interviewer.
We encourage readers to listen to Pat’s own oral history interview, recorded in July 2012. Pat served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia from 1963 to 1965 on a rural community development and health education project. She taught sewing and health classes and was also involved in building four rural schools and a bridge. Excerpted below are some meaningful anecdotes from her interview.
Pat met John F. Kennedy in person on the presidential campaign trail in Oregon in spring 1960.
WAND: I thought he was terrific partly because I had had this unique opportunity to not just meet him and shake his hand, but to introduce him to the student body at my high school. It was one of those really fluky things. He was campaigning in Portland, on the east side of Portland. He was like, you know, doing the whistle stops. I mean, he was going every place and the shopping centers and everything. And some of the really energetic young women who were seniors with me decided that we had to get him to come to our high school because, after all, we were a Catholic high school. And he should, you know, pay attention to us. So they went up to the shopping center where he was, and they first started talking to his handlers and they said, no way, there’s no time. So they got to him, to JFK himself, and said, come and see, you know, we’re only a few blocks away. Come on! And the nuns really want to meet you. And well, he said, yes, he would. So the whole entourage came. And of course, this was long before cell phones or anything. But here they come to campus. And I was student body president. I had to stand in front of the students and introduce John F. Kennedy to them. And we were in a construction zone. I mean, this was a high school that was still under construction, it was a new Catholic girls high school. We were the first class to go all the way through it. And anyway, it was such a great thrill to be in his presence and to have him right there at this little, you know, school where, I don’t know what we were, probably maybe 400 students at the most. It was quite a thrill. Yeah. Anyway, so I had this great affection for Kennedy in and of himself.
She became interested in the Peace Corps mainly due to her intense interest in travel.
WAND: So when it was time to graduate, I had been hearing about the Peace Corps. And it just seemed so interesting. And then I thought, well, you know, but I really want to go to Europe. I don’t really want to go to one of those, you know, developing countries. And then I thought, but I don’t have any money to go to Europe, and if I went to one of those developing countries, I could learn a language. I would be there for two years, so I’d really get to know the people. It would really make a difference in terms of my understanding of how another group of people live. And you know, who knows. I could, you know, just maybe even help them or something. I mean, helping was down the list of priorities in terms of Peace Corps. It was really for me at that point, I just was dying to travel. I just was dying to travel. And so I started looking at the application.
She began training at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque directly after graduating from college in June 1963. At that time, Peace Corps training often emphasized physical fitness and outdoor activities.
WAND: They said that the fundamental purpose of this Outward Bound project is to show you that when you think that you have taken your very last step, that you can’t take another step, that you can take another step, that you can survive this. It is the will. And so they wanted to push all of us as far as we would go. And so we did a lot of rock climbing and a lot of rappelling. And it was scary at times, especially going rock climbing. Rocks where, you know, there were just not holes far enough, close enough together for my hands, et cetera. But we had, you know, as you say, there’s a trust in others as well because there’d be people above and people below coaching. … And there were any number of women who decided to opt out of some of these things. And I was very proud of myself because I did absolutely every obstacle course or every single challenge, physical challenge, that was presented to us.
Training also included community development theory.
WAND: We had a lot of classes and orientation about what is community development, what does it mean, and how do you make sure that you’re really working with what are the felt needs of the community? And not just you, the gringo‘s, ideas of what they ought to be doing. And that is such a difficult, yeah, I mean, international development still faces this very basic question. … And the principles of community development are so important, and it was such an important concept that still is not widely applied enough. Because it’s really the best way. Anyway, we were kept, it was just drilled into us. When you go to the village, ask them what they need. And that’s the principle we used.
She was stationed in the small town of Buesaco, near Pasto in southern Colombia along the Pan American Highway. Initially the new environment was a shock.
WAND: I became so overwhelmed. … All I could see was the poverty, the filth, and the starvation of the babies and the children and the flies on their faces and the emaciated and extended stomachs. I became so depressed that all I wanted to do was cry. This was in the first few days and I just didn’t know what I was going to do because this is so, it was so unfair. … And then I kept thinking, oh my God, I’ve committed to be here for two years. How can I do this for two years? And every time I thought of two years, I would just, you know, sort of turn into a heap or want to turn into a heap. I keep a pretty good face up and I was able, but I tried not to be too negative, certainly not negative at all around the Colombians. … But so inside myself, this is what I did. I figured out a technique and the technique was this. OK, Pat, I said to myself, you get up tomorrow morning, six o’clock. You think about what’s going to happen between 6:00 and noon. That’s all you’re going to let your brain, your brain can only think until noon. At noon, at lunchtime, you can plan the afternoon. The next day, exactly the same thing. You get up at six o’clock. You think about what you’re going to do in the morning. And in the morning, you allow yourself to think then about the afternoon at lunchtime, you can think about the afternoon and evening. And that is how I got through the first two weeks. … Because suddenly, I mean, after I was there for about three or four weeks, I suddenly began, I suddenly realized, oh my God, I love this place. This is incredible, I mean, and it was. You know, and that’s the way the whole two years was.
She started cooking and nutrition classes for the women in the town, which grew into sewing classes as well.
WAND: So we started this mother’s club and there were probably 10 women that would come, and we’d have a meeting once a week and we’d talk with them about what they would like to learn. And then we would always do something about sanitation or nutrition. And we did the food groups, you know, four foods, very simple food groups and showing them how a good diet has all of those things in it. … Then they would bring their little notebooks and they would copy the recipes down. And we translated the recipes and put them on a sheet. And so we did this at a couple of mothers clubs in different neighborhoods in the village. … Then they started saying, well, teach [us] how to sew. And so I said, yeah, I think I can do that. But I had to teach myself how to draft patterns, and my mother sent me some stuff about drafting patterns. … So I started practicing and then I was able to show them, and so I ran [with it]. So I put together a curriculum for a sewing class where each woman chose a neckline pattern and they each did the basic, a basic shirtwaist dress. … So those little, we called them cursios or little courses, about sewing and I’m trying to think of how many. I think I ran at least two, I may have done three, and there were like four or five women in each one. And they lasted like two months or so.
Although teaching English was not part of her Peace Corps assignment, she responded to an expressed desire of the community.
WAND: One of the things that a friend wanted us to do was to teach English to the children. And at first, we resisted because we said, look, this is a village. Most of these children will never even get to high school. Why do they need English? Well, it’s the language of the future. Every child needs English. And he was dead set on making, on getting us to teach English. … First of all, we were told, don’t bother to teach English because that’s not what they need. But second of all, we were taught [to] listen to the felt needs. This is a felt need. And not only that, it would give us an entrée to the families if they see us as teachers. Our reputation will be further solidified. So we said, OK, OK, friend, we’ll teach English. … We started teaching almost right away and we taught once a week to the highest grade in the school, and we scoped each class around a science concept. … So we said, OK, if we’re going to do English, we’re going to relate it to something we want to tell them about. So we did science, we did nutrition, we did sanitation, and we would introduce English words. … And we started with the boys school and then we also then went over to the girls school too. So that was wonderful because we got, the children saw us as human beings.
She also facilitated the construction of multiple schools in the area by helping the community apply for funding from the Alliance for Progress, President Kennedy’s program for Latin America.
WAND: One day we had a knock on our little door. Everybody knew where the gringas lived. And it was two campesinos from a way distant vereda … who said, we understand that you’re here to help us and we need a school. And we want you to come and talk with us about how we can get a school in our neighborhood. … The money for the materials were available through the Alliance for Progress and through the Ministry of Education or one of the local ministries. … And the community had to put together a request. We helped them with that request, [to] fill out the paperwork. We went with them, the campesinos, on the bus to Pasto. We went to the office with them, next to them, and we were recognized. Whereas many, in many of those cases, the campesinos themselves [would not be]. And we were recognized, we were ushered into the room, the offices. We said we would be there to assist the community. … And they got the money. They got the money and they got an architect and the plan. The architect, the engineer, would come out on the day and the community had to build it themselves. … And before we left, we were involved in three more school building projects, at the request of the communities. … And the word spread that we could help.
She had only been in Buesaco for a few months when President Kennedy was assassinated. The local community was devastated by the news.
WAND: The day that Kennedy died was in, of course, November. We had been in the village only about six or seven weeks. We were in country just two months by that time. Because we came in late September, he was assassinated November 22nd… And that morning we had spent at the health center … And so we got back to our house and we fixed some lunch and we’re sitting eating some lunch, and the landlord of our house came through the back door … And he said, and he started saying, um, saying something. Kennedy, Kennedy! And we didn’t, I didn’t understand what he was saying. And so we opened the door and he came and he said, they’ve shot Kennedy, they’ve shot Kennedy! President Kennedy has been shot. And [fellow volunteer] Jenny and I looked at each other and Jenny helped me to really understand what [he was saying]. Is he dead? No, no, we don’t know. He’s just been shot. And so we turned on the radio and got Voice of America and could listen to it in English. But the town was devastated, devastated. Everybody was crying. It was as if — first of all, they could not believe that it would happen in the United States. They couldn’t believe, they immediately thought it was a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy against Latin America. … It was targeted in Latin America, because he was the first president who ever paid attention to Latin America. That was their feeling. And they said it was worse than if their own Colombian president had been assassinated. It was terrible. …
And so they immediately began to fly the Colombian flags with a black ribbon at the end, which is a sign of mourning. So we saw these Colombian flags flying out, up and down the village. … So I said to Jenny, I said, you know, the funeral’s tomorrow. We don’t have a flag. We’ve got to, we’ve got to do a flag. And she said, yeah, but you know, we don’t have one. And I said, you know, I could make one. … So I went to the village stores and I bought the red, white, and blue and I set about making our [American] flag. And we flew it out of our house on the, with the black, with the black ribbon of mourning. And the villagers loved it. They loved seeing the American flag in their village. But for the entire rest of the time we were in Colombia, whenever we met somebody new who realized that we were Americans, they said, we are so sorry about the death of your president. … The rest of the time, saying it over and over and over. It was a tragic time for Colombia.
Following completion of her Peace Corps service, Pat was able to return to Colombia three times and saw evidence that she had made a difference in people’s lives.
WAND: [In 1989] I was working with librarians in Ecuador and I had the opportunity to take my son, who was nine years old at the time, with me to Ecuador. And within the first month I was in Ecuador, I scheduled a long weekend to be gone, and I took my son and worked our way north by land to the Colombian border. We walked across the border there and then went on up. … We got onto the bus out to the village, and we were about halfway out to the village when the man in front of me turned around and said to me, Señora Patricia, donde está Jenny? In other words, where is Jenny? Because Jenny was my [Peace Corps] partner. And we always saw, they always saw us together. … This man recognized me from 24 years before. And me with my then already white hair and my nine year old son. So we chatted a bit. It was quite, you know, quite an emotional feeling for me to realize that I was recognized even with this age of 20 years, 25 years later. And then as we got off the bus, there was a man who came up from the back of the bus and got off behind me. And he stopped me as I stood on the ground in front of the gas station, in front of our old house. And he said to me, Señora Patricia, do my sisters know you are here? They still talk about you all the time. They are still sewing, you taught them to sew, so they will want to see you. Please come and see them. …
But the Olga situation was really quite a lovely situation as well. She invited us to have lunch with her. … So when she fed us lunch, she put a glass of juice down in front of each of our plates. And of course, my son and I were not drinking juice that was made by anybody except ourselves or didn’t come out of a can or a bottle. And so my son whispered to me, Mommy, what do I do with the juice? And I said, well, just a minute. So I said to Olga, of course, in Spanish, Olga, how did you make the juice? And she said, well, we wash the fruit, then we peel the fruit, then we blend it and mash it up, puree it, and then we add boiled water. And I said, oh, do you boil your water, Olga? And she said, well, of course, Señora Patricia, you’re the one who taught me how to boil water. … And she had totally incorporated that help, that sanitation issue into her life. So in the course of that day, I just spent a lot of time crying. Actually, besides the sisters that this man had told me about, who would want to see me and who were still sewing, there were two other women who found me in the village and who said to me, come to my house or come to my workshop, and see my sewing machine and see where I work. I clothe my children with the things that I make, and I feed my family because I sew, and you taught me to sew. So it was quite an incredible day.