Jonathan Darrah ’64

At the Core of Peace Corps

By Stephen M. Combs ’66

Jonathan Darrah

The Peace Corps has celebrated 50 birthdays, and Jon Darrah ’64 has been there, or close by, for 46 of them. Periodically forced by term limits into brief sabbaticals, he kept coming back and made a career of what are designed as two-year tours for idealistic kids just getting started. The Peace Corps is grateful he kept hanging around.

When Darrah retired in August as country director for Cambodia, an English-language newspaper there called him “one of the most important figures” in Peace Corps history. He is said to be the organization’s longest-serving volunteer.

He also held a record 10 country directorships, the highest nonpolitical Peace Corps appointment. This experience kept extending his tenure. “When the Soviet Union dissolved, they needed a few gray-haired people to get a program going in what was a very tricky country,” he said. Ignoring its own rules, the Corps kept him there more than eight years.

Darrah’s vast experience played well with volunteers, who could see wisdom in his fatherly guidance. “So few people have been a country director in so many countries,” he said. “They are intrigued.” (Among those he influenced is his son, Jack, who recently completed a two-year tour teaching math in Tanzania.)

President John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961 to show the world what Americans are really like. What transpired might not have been expected: young Americans expanding their worldview and learning much about themselves in the process.

Years in leadership positions got Darrah thinking about what the Corps was doing for its volunteers. “I saw my role as a chance to help mostly young people to think through what they could take from this experience, and where they could go with it,” he said. “That was a source of enormous satisfaction. Mostly it was a function of getting comfortable with the language and culture.”

The 100 volunteers in Cambodia, for example, teach English, primarily in rural high schools. They also pursue secondary activities like biogas projects, school gardens, empowerment camps for women, sports, and a health outreach program. “A lot of these young people had never worked before,” he said, “never experienced having to show up in a classroom, and meet responsibilities. The self-starters learn that they can do all sorts of fascinating things. And they see firsthand that we have resources that people in many parts of the world do not have. They learn that they aren’t just going to walk into some school and reform it overnight.”

These young Americans and Cambodians have a generational synergy that was unimaginable during Cambodia’s brutal rule by the Khmer Rouge, which fell in 1979. With half of the country’s 13-million population under 30, its young have no more memory of Cambodia’s dark days than do visitors of the political unrest that scarred the U.S. during the same time. “The Cambodian kids are eager to learn, and they want to get on with their education and lives,” Darrah said.

Darrah now stays busy taking care of homes in Vermont and Winter Park, and helping former volunteers with recommendation letters and, when asked, advice. He feels a continuing obligation to help them with the next step in their lives. “Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with the song still in their heart,” he said. “It was a great source of satisfaction for me to help these young people sing their song. I look back on what I’ve done and I feel good about it, with a sense of great satisfaction. Not many people can do that.”