Born between 1939 and ’44, four rural kids grew up in the undulating farm hills near Plainview — down near the toe of southeastern Minnesota overlooking the Mississippi River.
By 1963, there was nothing plain about their views. Ken Fliés found himself immersed in community projects along the São Francisco River in remote northeastern Brazil. Philip Mahle was building an African school in Sierra Leone. Charles Rheingans and Walter Mishcke were providing similar service in Thailand and Venezuela.
The four guys from Plainview became pioneers in the early days of the Peace Corps — defying the odds in the process. Nearly 60,000 people applied to join the organization when it formed in the early 1960s, but only 3,000 were selected and dispatched around the globe to work on rural community projects from 1962-64. Today, more than 200,000 men and women have served in the Peace Corps.
“The fact that four of these first Volunteers in 1962 came from this small, rural town and area in America speaks to the uniqueness of the community’s citizens …” says a plaque erected in September at the intersection of Hwy. 42 and 3rd Street in Plainview.
Journalist Bill Moyers, a Peace Corps volunteer and its deputy director in 1963, is quoted on the Plainview plaque, recalling those early days “when the bright flame of conviction took hold in the imagination of the country and the Peace Corps became a promise fulfilled.”
Called “one of America’s greatest social experiments,” the Peace Corps was largely the brainchild of then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey. He helped push the plan through Congress during President John Kennedy’s term and was appointed chairman of the Peace Corps Advisory Council under President Lyndon Johnson.
As vice president in the mid-1960s, Humphrey once welcomed home a group of Peace Corps volunteers, saying: “You have demonstrated that there exists a moral dimension of service … you have demonstrated to the world this is the real America.”
Cold War, be damned.
“We ought not to be doing things in this world just because the Communists are frightening us into it,” Humphrey said. “We ought to be doing things because we know it is right to do them. We don’t need a red devil to make free people act like just people!”
His grandson, Hubert (Buck) Humphrey, spoke at the plaque’s unveiling last fall.
“Minnesota was consistently one of the top five recruiting states and Plainview’s involvement is the essence of what my grandfather … had envisioned when he first thought of the idea of a U.S. Peace Corps,” Humphrey said, adding that his grandfather considered it one of his greatest accomplishments.
Joining at 19, Fliés was the youngest of the four Plainview Peace Corps pioneers. Sadly, he’s the only one still alive. He’ll discuss his Peace Corps memoir, “Into the Backlands,” at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Minnesota History Theatre in downtown St. Paul.
The second of 11 children, Fliés grew up doing dairy farm chores, graduating from Plainview High School and enrolling at what was then Mankato State University.
“Studying philosophy and other world topics caused me to question what my life was all about and recognize in myself a growing yearning for adventure,” he writes in his memoir.
The Peace Corps posters on campus caught his eye. His parents worried that if he trained for the Peace Corps but wasn’t invited to join, he might lose his college deferment and get drafted to fight in Vietnam.
“My parents’ position was indeed sobering,” he writes. “… Eventually my youthful idealism prevailed. … A teenager who led a relatively isolated life on a Minnesota dairy farm” headed to rural Brazil “during one of the most turbulent decades in American history.”
Fliés went on to become an accomplished entrepreneur who helped launch and develop a dozen companies, including a Brazilian agricultural firm.
Mahle, the oldest of the four, died of cancer in 2010 in Montana at 71. The school he helped build in Sierra Leone is still standing. He returned to Plainview in 1975, raising two daughters and working as a carpenter and a real estate appraiser and playing in the community band before retiring to Montana.
Mischke died in a 1995 farm tractor accident in Wabasha County, where he farmed with his brother near Theilman, Minn., after his Peace Corps stint in Venezuela. He was 54.
Rheingans died in Virginia in 2012 at 71. His Peace Corps days in Thailand led to a 35-year career in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines as a worker with the U.S. Agricultural Development agency.
His family recalled how he signed up with Mahle as University of Minnesota students — never thinking he’d get picked. When he was told he was Thailand-bound, he had to look at a map to see where he was going.
“Their premature passing has left me wishing I had spent more time with them to share their experiences,” Fliés said. “I am left in awe of … what they undertook and accomplished as young men off on an adventure of a lifetime.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.