I’m pretty sure Bill Mihay doesn’t think of himself as a pioneer.
In fact, when asked to select defining moments in his life, he listed three career paths — military service in the Navy, a college education at Indiana University and two years teaching in Ethiopia.
It’s that last stage that touches upon the pioneering experience. Bill was the first person from Bartholomew County to be selected for the Peace Corps.
It was 50 years ago this month that the young teacher was told he had been accepted into the newly formed organization created in the early years of John F. Kennedy’s administration to assist struggling countries and erase perceptions of “ugly Americans” abroad.
That was just one of his first moments. He and 274 other volunteers were also the first to be dispatched to the African nation by the Peace Corps.
When it was first launched in 1961, the year JFK took office, the Peace Corps was seen as one of the symbols of the New Frontier that administration embraced.
For many young Americans it represented an opportunity to “do for their country.” Bill was one of those Americans, but there were some practical reasons for his application to the fledgling service.
“I gave it some thought when the Peace Corps was created, but I wanted to wait to see how it might work out,” the retired Columbus teacher said this week. “As it turned out, I was teaching at Centerville at the time and had come to the point that I was looking for something new. When this arose, I saw it as an opportunity to learn about other cultures.”
He didn’t have any particular cultures in mind, which was evidenced when he was contacted by a Peace Corps official, told that he had been accepted into the program and asked which country he was interested in.
“I just told him that I didn’t care,” Bill said, leaving the choice to the Peace Corps. It selected Ethiopia for the young teacher who was a Bartholomew County native, putting him and more than 300 others through an intensive eight-week training course in Georgetown, Va.
That course featured some memorable moments. “They had invited several experts to conduct seminars. One of them was (famed anthropologist) Margaret Mead. They also invited us to the White House, where President Kennedy talked about our mission. He even gave all of us a personal tour of the White House.”
The training was a preamble to the actual experience, but even though the volunteers were aware they would be living in somewhat primitive conditions, the real thing still caught many by surprise.
“The first thing we became aware of was the smell,” Bill said. “There was little refrigeration in many of the areas, and the meat offered for sale was often displayed out in the open. Eventually that caused me to lose my appetite, and I lost something like 30 pounds in the first six months I was there.”
The volunteers also had to adjust their use of such necessities as water. “We’d have to boil water for at least 20 minutes before using it for such things as cooking or even taking a bath. A lot of times we had to collect rain water in large barrels so that we would be prepared in the event of dry periods.”
The first group sent to Ethiopia consisted mainly of teachers. Bill was assigned to a school where he taught a wide range of students from third through 12th grades. He expected a change from the students he dealt with in the United States. After a few days he discovered there were remarkable similarities.
“The eighth-graders were especially like American students,” he recalled. “Some of them were defiant and troublemakers. Many of them challenged me, and I had to throw some of them out of class. In fact, I encountered a rebellion. The principal of the school told me that some of the students had organized an effort to remove me from school. I told him that I would prefer to resign rather than be dismissed, but he suggested that I be patient and give the situation some time. Sure enough, he came back a week later and told me there was a movement among the students to keep me as a teacher.”
Stereotypes of African students raised in an atmosphere of benign ignorance of what was happening in the world were dismissed in his classrooms. “Some of them challenged me with questions about the United States. They wanted to know how I could explain things like Birmingham (where segregation was still an official policy of local government). Those kind of questions led to some pretty spirited discussions.”
He laughed as he recalled his own transitions because of the experiences.
“I suppose that at first I changed some of the attitudes I had about teaching when I was in Indiana so that my new students would be more accepting of me. Eventually, however, I decided to take firmer control of the classes and discipline some of the troublemakers. The principal took notice of this and told me that I was the ‘new’ Mihay. I told him that I had actually reverted to the ‘old’ Mihay.”
He got his appetite back when he left Ethiopia, but as he resumed a new teaching career in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. he discovered the influence he had had on some of his Ethiopian students.
“There was this one student who eventually came to the United States to study to become a doctor,” he said. “He got in touch with me and said that there was one incident that still had a great influence on his life. He recalled how I had stood at a blackboard and put a simple dot in the middle of the board. ‘You told us that that dot represented everything that mankind knew. Then you drew a huge circle around the dot and pointed to the blank space and said, ‘All of this represents what we have yet to learn.’”
That’s a pretty good lesson that’s held up after almost 50 years.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.