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 next week's 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.
Work still to be done
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 Brookses 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. "
A major culture shock
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 Brookses 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."
A book is born
She and Earle formed a close friendship with David Boyer, the photographer who took the picture for National Geographic. (An it's-a-small-world aside: Years later, Boyer stayed in the Brookses' home while in Minnesota shooting what would become the quasi-famous Time magazine cover of a beaming, plaid-shirted Gov. Wendell Anderson holding aloft a fish he'd just caught.)
Boyer urged the Brookses to write a book about their experiences. "There were already several books about the Peace Corps and what it does," she said. "But there weren't any books from the perspective of the volunteers."
Boyer put them in touch with a literary agent, who liked the idea so much that he sold it to a publisher on spec. The Brookses were reluctant to get involved until they discovered that the publisher was willing to pay them in installments as they did the work. The first payment would come when they submitted an outline.
"We didn't have jobs, we didn't have any health insurance, and I was about to have a baby," she said. "I ended up in labor at Methodist Hospital frantically trying to finish the outline so we could pay for the baby."
The book, "The Barrios of Manta," was published in 1964. It's being reissued as an e-book this fall. It will be updated to include a return trip the family made to Manta in 1977 and the Brookses' second Peace Corps assignment in Chile.
The upcoming week will be busy for Brooks. She'll attend a dinner for authors who have written about the Peace Corps. The Ecuador and Chile embassies are hosting parties for volunteers who served in those countries. There will be a gala celebration marking the Sept. 22, 1961, passage of the Peace Corps Act by Congress. And there will be a parade through Washington, D.C., in which participants will carry the flags of the 139 countries in which the volunteers have served.
Brooks is thrilled that the Peace Corps will be getting some attention. Its public profile isn't as high as it was in the 1960s and '70s, but with distrust permeating so much of international relations, she is adamant that it is as relevant now as ever.
"There is so much intolerance and lack of understanding," she said. "If we can bring cultures together, we can work through our problems in a peaceful way."