working the fields

Dick Hamann is pictured here working the fields in the Philippines during his time in the Peace Corps.

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Hamann Peace Corps

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps by executive order. Most of us knew people who applied to join the volunteer movement that would go to emerging nations and work along with the people in those nations. Some went as teachers, others to do construction, work in clinics and hospitals, and still others to help the rural people farm. The first volunteers arrived in Tanganyika and Ghana in the fall of 1961. Some of the host countries hesitated about letting the volunteers in because they were afraid that former CIA employees might come as spies, so people with that background were barred from joining.

Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, was the first leader of the Peace Corps which attracted college students since the lower age limit was 18, and many college students wanted a chance to travel before settling down with a career. There was no upper age limit, but the volunteers did have to pass physical tests, and some mentioned they “failed swimming” in later years. One of the first volunteers to go from North Dakota was Helena Faust from St. John, a career teacher and grandmother with bright red hair when I met her in the 1970s after she had returned to teach remedial reading to children in North Dakota---and at the same time tell her students about her work in Africa. In spite of the low salary, $75 a month, a number of the volunteers were young people working on medical careers who would later be known as another group still working internationally called Doctors Without Borders. Peace Corps workers have served in 142 host countries to date, and more than 240,000 volunteers have been part of the program which celebrated its 60th Anniversary on March 1 of this year.

In the mid 1960s, Dick Hamann’s father had died. Dick was farming their family farm and living with his mother. He started thinking about the Peace Corps as a way to help others and to do something very few others would want to try. Dick did not apply until the 1970s when the Peace Corps started a new program that needed farmers. He was assigned to a program working with rural banks that would set up loans for local farmers. There were 27 in this pilot group ranging in age from 18 to 66. Dick was then 47 and has kept in touch with several of his co-workers down through the years.

In honor of the 60th Anniversary of the Peace Corps, Reminisce magazine asked people with Peace Corps experience to send in stories, so Dick wrote his story and sent it in a few months ago. It was printed in the April/May issue of the magazine, so he shared it with me, and since the printed story is covered by copyright, Dick added in other details that had been edited out for the magazine version so we could share it with Langdon Long Ago readers. He also found the pictures which will accompany the column but were not in the magazine article.

Dick left for Peace Corps service in the Philippines in the fall of 1973 and was assigned to Naguilian in La Union province. He was assigned to live with a farm family who charged him about $25 a month for room and board. The first night there they cooked him a whole fish and watched him eat it. Naguilian had no electricity, limited water, and no phones-much like rural North Dakota during the Depression. The Filipino families fed their guests even if they had very little to share. The farm work was not the kind where the visitor might sit on the sidelines and watch. The volunteers went to work in the fields along with the farmers, so I was happy when he told about ploughing in a rice paddy with a water buffalo. During the spring floods when I lived in Colorado, the winter wheat looked much like the rice paddies of southeast Asia we saw along with war news from Vietnam, but Colorado had tractors that did not like the mud.

The volunteers had a little time off, and Dick tells about going to Manilla on the bus. The capital was 150 miles away, and the fare for the trip was 75 cents. The trip would take all day. If people flagged the bus down, the driver would pick them up, and they brought all sorts of things with them like chickens and pigs and, of course, children. It was hot, noisy, and dusty. By the time they got to the city, some people were hanging onto the sides of the bus. On one of these trips, he met Lina and her two-year old daughter, Leah. By March of 1974, they got married with her family, Filipino friends, and Peace Corps workers putting on a feast for the wedding. A picture from the wedding is part of this column and adding Lina, Leah, and later their son, John, to the family really changed Dick’s life and has given him many happy memories.

But first we need to say a bit about their trip back to Langdon. Dick had developed an allergy much like a bad case of sinus from some of the plants in the area so was in the process of being discharged and would come back to the farm at Langdon. As it happened, Lina’s birth records had been lost during the war, so they had to get help from Senator Andrews to clear her visa. This took time and some long-distance negotiating, but they made it back that spring. The farm had been rented out, and when that lease expired, Dick farmed again with help from Lina, of course. Both Leah and John graduated from high school in Langdon, and John served in the Marines before his death. Leah now teaches at a Bismarck college.

Lina and the friends they have had down through the years, as well as the continued contact with the Peace Corps family (those who volunteered and the families they helped), have enriched their lives. As a family, they did have a chance to return to the Philippines when the children were still home and met old friends and relatives there. Sadly, Lina, who also had a career cooking at Maple Manor, passed away last fall. Special thanks to Dick for sharing his story and to their family as well. We did not find anyone else from Langdon who went to the Peace Corps, served there, and returned to share their experiences. Dick is now 95, and if you want to know more, he would be glad to visit with you.

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