Local resident remembers time in original Peace Corps


January 05, 2011
SUGAR HILL- Bradford Whipple is a man with a thousand stories. He could tell you about the summer he spent building Sugar Hill's Ledgeland Cottages with his family, or his time as an American intelligence analyst during the fifties, or being the first American to learn of Sputnik's launch. But, as the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps passes, Whipple's mind turns to the two years he spent in Colombia as part of the first group of Peace Corp volunteers.

"I cannot disconnect from international understanding and the belief that a wider peace is possible if we work at it," said Whipple, 72, who joined the volunteer program that sends American overseas to work in developing nations in 1961 at the ripe age of 23.

Whipple was a Russian and German student at University of Massachusetts Amherst when he applied for the program, and fresh out of the United States Air Force where he had spent his time in the Security Service, stationed in a town called Darmstadt. It was in Darmstadt where he first intercepted Sputnik's signal, and in Darmstadt where he had his first real taste of life outside of America.

"I was a little afraid [of Germany] because of what I had heard growing up in Boston," said Whipple, who was three years old when America joined World War II.

"They're all lies we tell each other when we're gearing up for war," he said. "It took me a while to realize that."

He bought a camera and took pictures of life in Germany. He distinctly remembers one of the first pictures he took – of a German girl, staring right at the lens.

"She had a look on her face that said, 'What the hell are you doing here?'" said Whipple. "I've kept that photo, that feeling I had when I was 18."

That feeling was very formative for Whipple. Rather than go out to the bars with other military men, Whipple spent much of his free time overseas exploring the town and getting to know the foreign culture. And when he had returned home, he jumped at the chance to be trained as a Peace Corps volunteer. He applied for the program thinking there was no way they would accept someone without a college degree, but at least that the training program would be a good way to spend the summer.

"I could not resist the attraction of something new, of something exotic, of something with promise," he said.

Already a talented linguist, Whipple was invited to the training and after eight 50-hour weeks of physical training, psychological testing, and lessons on Colombian history and culture, Whipple was one of the 62 men chosen to continue onto South America. That group is known as the Colombian Oners.

Whipple was based in the rural village of El Valle de San Jose with the broad task of community development. He lived in an adobe-walled room at a local boarding house, remembers Whipple. The room had a terracotta floor, single bulb, and steel cot.

"We were lucky to have electricity in town – a lot of towns didn't," said Whipple.

El Valle de San Jose is located in the Colombian region of Santander, and had an agricultural-based economy, yielding sugar cane, coffee, yucca, fique, corn, platano, and cotton. During his time there, Whipple worked to build four schools, an aqueduct system, and a 15-kilometer road.

Though Whipple was raised in Dorchester, Mass., he spent his summers and many of his weekends in Sugar Hill where his father had grown up, and felt very connected to the region. Whipple said many of the lessons he learned in his time living in small town New Hampshire were beneficial for his Peace Corps work.

"In a little town, you do what you have to do," said Whipple – an insight he gleaned both during the time he spent in the North Country growing up and when he returned full-time in the 1970s. Living in a small town gives you the outlook that you can't wait for other people to do something for you, noted Whipple, but also that a solution can be found if you set your mind to it – sometimes if you set the community's "mind" to it.

In Colombia, it was much the same. Whipple worked closely with the people of the village – a resource he said he could have accomplished nothing without.

"It was not all a bed of roses," said Whipple.

At the time, the country was terrorized by bandits so much so that when Whipple had plans to bring over his fiancé – Anka, a woman he had met and fallen in love with while in Germany, but who ultimately did not come – he told her to pack a revolver.

On another occasion, Whipple's life was threatened when a bulldozer brought to town by Whipple for the construction of a road ended up driving through a man's sugar cane field. Though Whipple was not responsible for the actions of the driver, the farmer whose field was destroyed saw things differently. He already had a dislike for Whipple – and he was also known to carry a revolver.

"I really did think, 'This could have a nasty ending,'" said Whipple. "Ended up we got to be good friends."

Whipple left his mark on the people, and the country. One of his final acts before he finished his two-year mission was to bring a much-needed bridge to the village. He found the bridge in another village while looking out his window during a bus ride to Colombia's capital. After some negotiation with the village, and some help from a Colombian government official, the bridge was given to El Valle de San Jose. To this day, it holds a bronze plaque that reads: Bradford H. Whipple, Peace Corps Volunteer.

"To have a bridge named after you while you are still alive – that's a big deal," said Whipple, more excited about that bridge than any of the extensive press coverage the Colombia Oners received.

When they were training, the Colombia Oners were covered by such noteworthy publications as Time and Life, and featured by Walter Cronkite. The interest in the program was vast despite many opinions that the program would never last.

"When the Peace Corps started, they thought it would never work. It was just Kennedy's 'kiddy corps,'" said Whipple.

Fifty years later, the Colombia Oners returned to Rutgers University, in New Jersey, where their training took place, and helped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program. A plaque was presented at Rutgers in their honor. Whipple was there to accept it with many of his colleagues.

Since his time as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, Whipple has dedicated much of his life to the North Country, including teaching at Franconia College, serving as a Sugar Hill selectmen, as well as working 22 years as a police officer in the town. His life is full of stories, and people are always telling him to write them down, said Whipple. But he is still working on creating new stories.

"There's too much to write," he said. "I'm too busy living life."

Whatever Whipple plans on doing with the rest of his life, he brings a unique perspective to it – one colored by his storied experiences.

"The effect of being baptized into both cultures – peace and war, spy craft and community development – have made me a strange person, uncomfortable with the world as it functions and eager to continue the task of trying to improve it," said Whipple.

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