Local returns to Peace Corps
April 01, 2011SUGAR HILL- When Sugar Hill resident Bradford Whipple was in his early 20s, he was given the opportunity to serve in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers, known now as the Colombia-Oners after the South American country they set out to aid. Fifty years later, Whipple returned to the country to find much changed, but that his mark remains.
"The trip was a total renewal," said Whipple last week following his recent return from the country he lived and worked in for two years in the early 1960s. Whipple spent two weeks in Colombia, visiting many of the places he spent time in during his youth, and even some of the people.
Whipple, a 23-year-old linguist halfway through a college degree, but with several years experience as an American intelligence analyst in the U.S. Air Force, was one of 62 men chosen to participate in the two-year pilot program of President John F. Kennedy's experiment to send American volunteers overseas to work in developing countries. In Colombia, 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 in a room with a terracotta floor, single bulb, and steel cot.
During his time there, Whipple worked to build four schools, an aqueduct system, and a 15-kilometer road.Upon his return, Whipple was able to visit many of these things he helped to create. A visit to one of the schools he helped build revealed it was still being used. The students even greeted him with a welcome song.
"That was a big heart-opener for me, to see that school and those kids," he said.
Whipple was also proud to note that the road he helped build is the only one in town that is paved, though it was only partially done after Whipple's departure.
Whipple was also able to visit some sites that hold some less joyful memories, such as the trapiche, or sugar cane farm, that Whipple once was caught in while trying to put out a fire. Today, the trapiche is still there, and thriving.
"I went back to this place," said Whipple. "They've rebuilt. They have sugar and coffee and oranges and cattle."
Though many of the people Whipple became friends with during his time abroad have since died, there are some who still remember him, including the children of the man Whipple credits as making all his work possible, Salomon Hernandez. Whipple was able to visit with Hernandez' children, who now have children of their own, and was welcomed into their homes to share stories of the man they all knew and loved.
Though Hernandez is long gone, Antonio Corso, now 75 years old, was Whipple's good friend during his time spent in the Peace Corps and remains so today, serving as Whipple's traveling companion (and chauffeur) for most of the two-week excursion around the country.
"We say we don't look alike or anything else, but we are brothers," said Whipple.
Corso was one of the men who followed through on a project Whipple started to bring a bridge that was being largely unused from one part of Colombia to another. The bridge was later dedicated to Whipple, complete with a plaque in his honor.
"I drove across it, and it's got my name on it," said Whipple in giddy disbelief, though he said he was hesitant to accept much of the praise rained down on him from residents of the village who remembered or had heard of him.
"I was down there doing a job," said Whipple. "It wasn't just me. It was the guys I was down there with who made it possible."
Much has changed from the town he remembers. When Whipple was in El Valle de San Jose in the 1960s, the town had one crank phone, he recalled. Now, that is not the case.
"Everyone's got a cell phone. Everyone's got Wi-Fi. There are cars everywhere. In 50 years, what do you expect?" Whipple asked, goodnaturedly. He also noted the construction of a central school for the children of the town and a covered plaza for market as two physical changes to the town.
Though Whipple understands and appreciates the change the country has gone through, he cannot help but lament the loss of some of the places he knew as they were 50 years ago.
"Bucaramanga [the capital city of the part of Colombia Whipple lived in] is too big," he said. "It was a cheery, fun place to be. Now, it's unfamiliar."
Despite the recognition that Colombia is a changed country, Whipple cannot be happier that he returned, and is already planning his next visit to reconnect with old friends and the many new ones he made during his recent visit.
"You can't duplicate yesterday," said Whipple, "but you can go back, and I'm so thankful that I did. I got such a warm feeling for some of the things I started. It was probably the most important thing I've done in my life."