News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 22, 2009

From Terre Haute to the Peace Corps — McDavids answer the call

By Erin Soto

TERRE HAUTE — Many know Terre Haute’s Robert “Doc” McDavid, long-time ISU professor, researcher, entrepreneur as well as avid golfer. But you may not know of his Peace Corps service and that four of his daughters served in the Peace Corps and went on to fulfill the vision established by President Kennedy by continuing their service in the federal government.

It seems all the rage now. Many elite universities have established overseas service as a graduation requirement. These universities are realizing what Robert McDavid and Kennedy knew a couple generations ago.

McDavid was a graduate from the University of Notre Dame, and shortly after Kennedy established his vision for the U.S. Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver was called on to lead establishment of this new institution. Kennedy — and his call to public service to build bridges with developing countries and improve the U.S. image overseas — needed top quality talent to fulfill his vision. Reputations are indispensable and networks matter, too. McDavid was recommended for a position by his department chair, Dr. John Scannel, to Notre Dame President Father John Cavanaugh, a friend of Shriver.

In early 1962, McDavid interviewed with Shriver after being screened and appropriately outfitted with an acceptable tie.

“Father Cavanaugh says you are the best physical educator Notre Dame ever produced,” McDavid recalled the opening line of the interview. To which Doc responded, “Father Cavanaugh is known to be expansive with the truth!” And the rest, is history. Little did McDavid know the lasting impact of that first meeting would have on him and his family.

The Peace Corps established a four-part training program as a prerequisite to the two-year volunteer service in a developing country. McDavid was hired as the technical advisor to develop the physical training component of the Peace Corps’ well known, three-month, pre-service training. Each volunteer received training in the culture of the host country, language, and technical skills like teaching English, village health, or gardening, for example.

McDavid worked closely with a consortium of universities assigned to train the first volunteers including, Georgetown, George Washington University, Howard, American University and Johns Hopkins, among others. At that time, most of the volunteers were trained for placement in Africa, from Ethiopia to Sierra Leone and Togo.

Twenty years later, the first of four McDavid daughters ventured the Peace Corps service. Now, 40 years later, all four women continue their public service in senior positions with the federal government — fulfilling the Kennedy vision.

No doubt, family experiences and stories heard growing up called them each to the Peace Corps. Stories dating back to grandparents laid the foundation.

Looking at the world

“Our parents always influenced us to look outward toward the rest of the world to seek information and knowledge to increase our awareness,” said Elizabeth, a Terre Haute Schulte High School graduate and the first daughter to serve.

As a University of Wisconsin student, she was inspired to learn Hausa, the most widely spoken language of West Africa.

After graduation, she was posted in a small village in eastern Niger, where she worked as a nutrition educator. It was not uncommon for Elizabeth to nurse malnourished children, teach young mothers good breastfeeding habits, and monitor the growth of children under 5 years old in her village.

Kathleen, a 1984 Terre Haute South Vigo High School graduate and also a Notre Dame grad, was attracted as well to the idea of learning a new language, French, and culture. Kouande, Benin, in West Africa was her new home. Like her sister, Kathleen focused on improving the health of children under 5, as well as helping local gardening cooperatives to boost productivity and profits for poor village families.

Margaret, who graduated from Terre Haute South and then from Boston College, was between college and graduate school when she heard the president of Ireland speak about the importance of public service. That speech, combined with the reference point of her sisters’ experience, led her to apply to the Peace Corps. In 1994 Margaret was posted to Vogan, Togo, to serve as an environmental extension agent and agro-forestry volunteer.

Martha Erin, a graduate of South in 1978 and University of Wisconsin in 1982, taught at West Vigo and Sarah Scott schools before serving in Escuintla, Guatemala, as a youth volunteer. Guatemala imposed a tax on cigarettes, alcohol, and gas, and used the revenues to build sports complexes throughout the country. Youth volunteers helped the government operate the complexes. After the first year, “I ventured into health education for mothers of children under five years — although the mothers wanted me to teach them how to play basketball,” Martha Erin recalled.

Each daughter learned things that can’t be found in books, such as how much work women do and “how important they are to keeping everything going. And by improving the status and position of women, you in turn, improve the entire society,” Martha Erin said. Each learned simple but important lessons, such as — start small, and if the project works, expand it.

“I learned that prevention is the key in approaching development,” said Kathleen.

Elizabeth learned to be patient and take the time to recognize others.

“I learned that as a foreigner and as hard as you try — and Peace Corps is as close as it gets — you can never put yourselves in their shoes,” Elizabeth said. You have to remember that when you give advice. These are lessons that have certainly carried with us today.

Each daughter found aspects of their host’s culture that they really appreciated.

“I liked the sense of community; when someone received a gift, they shared it selflessly with everyone,” recounted Kathleen. She liked the respect they had for elders in the community, and Martha Erin liked “their sense of family in Guatemala where distant relatives and godparents and ‘cousins,’ who included family friends not related by blood but considered family nonetheless.”

Their spirit of optimism despite their humble means left a lasting impression on Margaret, “the Togolese would always find a reason to laugh.” Kathleen liked the way women would sing as they did the family chores for the day — gathering water, firewood, or sweeping, washing the laundry by hand, etc.

Margaret learned that speaking the hosts’ language the first step but not enough to communicate, one has to learn to communicate in the same manner your hosts do – often in a less direct manner, in parables or stories or analogies.

It wasn’t always easy, and Elizabeth recalls being “frustrated by villagers’ sense of fate.” Margaret and Erin remember the “lack of privacy or sensation of ‘life in a fishbowl.’” But these were relatively minor issues and ultimately the volunteers adjust to the host and or the hosts adjusts to the volunteer.

Margaret shares the story about trying to convey the very American “time is money” expression and concept to a group of new friends. In her small, remote village, the concept was simply lost. “How could time be money?” she remembered them asking her. “I stopped wearing my watch a short time after that,” she said, laughing.

Push taxi, then pay

All the McDavid daughters say, hands down, it was the single best experience of their life. Each found memories and friends to last a lifetime, like the many bush taxi trips.

Most volunteers took bush taxis from time to time, which are old, beat-up cars or trucks, packed to the brim and beyond, that shuttle people between towns and cities. (There isn’t a public transport system.)

Elizabeth would travel to Zinder, the regional capital about 50 miles away, to pick up a monthly stipend of about $100. Young boys were paid to coax travelers onto their boss’s taxi, and departure was scheduled only for when it filled up two times beyond the capacity.

They kept cramming people into the back of small vans or old Peugoet 504s until there was not a cubic inch of unoccupied space. We sat on top of old tires, bales of grain, next to goats and chickens, or, in one case bales of dried red peppers going to market.

A one hour trip could take all day, what with waiting for the taxi to fill up, going to the gas station for fuel, prayers before leaving, mandatory market stops, more prayers, engine breakdowns — which could easily result in us, the passengers, pushing the taxi into its final destination, making you wonder why you paid for the trip and not the taximan.

Elizabeth is a runner and most villagers had never seen someone (much less a woman) running along a dirt road unless there was an emergency of some kind. In her first weeks, people on camels or horseback stopped to ask if everything was OK. Gradually, they grew accustomed to her and simply waved as they passed her on the road.

I, Martha Erin, remember standing before a class of 60 children, ages 6 to16, giving my first and well-rehearsed instructions in Spanish. Much to my dismay, no one acted on those instructions. I repeated them again being sure to enunciate the with my best Spanish accent. No movement. I was lost as to what to do next. They didn’t understand my Spanish. After what seemed like forever, the youngest, smallest girl in the class walked up to me and whispered in Spanish, “Don’t worry, I speak English.” She then proceeded to repeat identical instructions in Spanish and everyone followed them.

We made friends to last a lifetime.

Peace Corps is such a profound and unique experience that the people who share that experience with you form a bond for life. These are folks who shared your trials and tribulations and triumphs.

They understand what it is like to have to push a bush taxi to its destination and get charged for it. They know the frustration of trying to express yourself with only a third-grade foreign language fluency level. Or they know what it is like to exit the bus before your destination to relieve an upset stomach, knowing that the next bus doesn’t pass until the next day.

It has been more than a decade since the last McDavid returned from Peace Corps service. Today, all four continue their dedication to public service. Margaret is a senior analyst for the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Her last job was to investigate at the request of Congress the governance of the Smithsonian Institutes in Washington, making sure tax dollars are well spent and accounted. Kathleen is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta working on HIV/AIDS. Elizabeth is working in international public health for USAID, and Martha Erin is the director of United States Agency for International Development’s Mission in Cambodia.

Just a few months ago, Martha Erin hosted a three-week visit from her niece, Catie McDavid of South Carolina, who volunteered to work with HIV-positive orphan children in Phnom Penh. It’s unsure if Peace Corps is in her future, but it is certainly in her blood. Who knows, she may be the third generation of McDavids to carry out President Kennedy’s vision of world peace.

Martha Erin (McDavid) Soto is a Terre Haute native and a 1978 graduate of Terre Haute South Vigo High School.

Family Legacy

Like the father of their Terre Haute family, Robert McDavid, four McDavid daughters also served in the Peace Corps. Their base city and years of service were:

Elizabeth McDavid (Niger), 1978-80.

Martha Erin McDavid Soto (Guatemala), 1984-86.

Kathleen McDavid Harrison (Benin), 1989-91.

Margaret Blaise McDavid (Togo), 1994-96.

Peace Corps at a Glance

The Peace Corps was launched on March 1, 1961, by President Kennedy. Here are a few quick facts about the organization.

Today, 7,876 volunteers — based in 70 post locations — serve 76 countries. Sixty percent are women.

Since the Corps began, 195,000 Americans have served as volunteers.

The average age is 27 years. Five percent of the volunteers are older than 50. The oldest current volunteer is 84.

94 percent of the volunteers hold a college degree.

The Peace Corps’ budget for 2009 is $330.8 million.

The toll-free recruitment number is 1-800-424-8580.

Sources: Erin Soto,